The crime seemed minor — maybe more like a prank. In December 2010, someone changed an article about tax policy on the Los Angeles Times Web site. Many of the changes didn’t make sense — references to “Chippy 1337” and “Chippys NO 1 FAN.” “Reluctant House Democrats told to SUCK IT UP,” read one intelligible alteration.
The end result looked something like this:
But for journalist Matthew Keys, who prosecutors said illegally leaked the username and password needed to make the changes to the hacking group Anonymous, the end result may mean 25 years in prison. In a case that’s drawn the attention of Edward Snowden and other advocates, Keys, a 28-year-old former Reuters employee, was convicted Wednesday in federal court in California for conspiring to make unauthorized changes to the Web sites of the Tribune Company, owner of the L.A. Times; for conspiring to damage its computers; and for transmitting and attempting to transmit malicious code.
“For defacing an @LATIMES article for 40 minutes, journo @MatthewKeysLive faces 25 years,” Snowden tweeted. “Years.”
In an telephone interview with The Washington Post hours after his conviction, Keys summarized his thoughts.
“It’s bulls—,” he said. “The verdict is bulls—, the case is bulls—, the charges are bulls—. It’s all bulls—.”
Keys and his attorney, Jay Leiderman, said they will appeal.
“He shouldn’t be doing a day in jail,” Leiderman told the L.A. Times. “With love and respect, [The Times’] story was defaced for 40 minutes when someone found it and fixed it in three minutes. What do you want, a year a minute?”
Prosecutors said they are likely to ask for less than a five-year sentence but stressed that Keys’s conduct was damaging.
“Although this case has drawn attention because of Matthew Keys’ employment in the news media, this was simply a case about a disgruntled employee who used his technical skills to taunt and torment his former employer,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said in a statement. “Although he did no lasting damage, Keys did interfere with the business of news organizations, and caused the Tribune Company to spend thousands of dollars protecting its servers. Those who use the Internet to carry out personal vendettas against former employers should know that there are consequences for such conduct.”
For those not initiated in the parlance of hacker chat rooms, the case was a bit difficult to parse.
“The case was so dense with tech nonsense and gibberish that it was even hard for us to follow,” Keys said.
What was clear: Five years ago, Keys was no longer an employee of KTXL Fox 40, a Tribune-owned TV station in Sacramento. Keys said he left the company on his own; prosecutors said he was “recently terminated.”
So, according to an indictment, Keys entered an Anonymous-affiliated chat room, gave others a username and password, and told them to “go f— some s— up” — which they proceeded to do at the L.A. Times Web site.
The indictment offered a glimpse into the conversation between Keys, said to use the handle “AESCracked,” and “Sharpie,” an FBI informant. AESCracked asked if Sharpie’s edit was “live”; Sharpie said it was up for half an hour. Though the login was soon killed, the pair contemplated further hackery.
AESCracked: I have a hard drive full of Tribune crap, but it’s in another location.
AESCracked: Sure thing
Sharpie: that was such a buzz having my edit on the LA Times
Keys’s explanation: It wasn’t him.
“Let’s be clear: I never passed a username or password to Anonymous,” he said.
Keys, who went on to serve as deputy social media editor for Reuters before his indictment in 2013, said he was investigating Anonymous in chat rooms when his username was used without his permission by parties unknown. Five years ago, Anonymous was in the news for its attacks on Visa and PayPal — and, according to Keys, he was just doing his job.
“It occurred to me that no one had looked into these guys,” he said. “They were talking at a level above my head. … Anybody could co-opt [the username] and it looks like in this case somebody did.”
Keys said the Tribune Company — by then his former employer to whom he nonetheless pitched his story about Anonymous — should have supported him. This was about freedom of the press, not passwords.
“Tribune Media – what are they thinking?” he said. “Do they care about journalism at all? Do they care about the government prosecuting a journalist who decided to keep his sources undisclosed? That is beyond disgusting.”
The company did not seem to harbor many regrets.
“We are pleased that the justice system worked,” a spokesman for Tribune Media, Gary Weitman, told Reuters. “We will let today’s verdict speak for itself.”
Many news organizations, including The Washington Post, have fallen prey to hackers such as the Syrian Electronic Army in recent years. Perhaps for this reason, others were skeptical of Keys’s side of the story.
“Evidence shows that he at least goaded the attackers, and that the kind of power he gave (complete control over Tribune’s content system for multiple sites) was extensive,” Jon Fingas of the tech blog Engadget wrote. “Whatever Keys’ intentions really were, the potential damage could have been much, much worse.”
Commenters seemed to focus less on freedom of the press than the severity of the punishment that may be meted out to Keys.
“So [he] did something dumb; we know that,” Andy Carvin, formerly of NPR, wrote. “But prison time for helping deface a web page? Come on now.”
Others also questioned whether the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), under which Keys was convicted, was unduly harsh.
“The CFAA is one of the laws that is misused by prosecutors, piling on potential jail time to relatively minor charges in order to ratchet up pressure on defendants and get them to plead guilty rather than risk trial,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, billed as the “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world,” wrote earlier this year.
Keys, who said he refused a plea deal, was unwavering.
“You have a government agency prosecuting a journalist for committing an act of journalism,” he said. “They targeted me as a criminal.”
Keys is due to be sentenced in January.