Matthew Keys, a journalist found guilty of conspiring with hacking group Anonymous to break into the Los Angeles Times website, was sentenced to two years in prison on Wednesday in a case that has sparked national debate about how the US prosecutes hacking offenses.
Keys, who was found guilty of three criminal counts in October, was convicted of giving Anonymous login credentials to the computer system of the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and other media companies.
Prosecutors alleged that a hacker used information Keys provided to change the headline of a 2010 Times story. KTXL-TV, a Tribune-owned Fox affiliate in Sacramento, had previously fired Keys, and the US attorney’s office asserted that the incident was payback by a disgruntled former employee.
Soon after a judge announced the sentence in federal court in Sacramento on Wednesday, Keys, who has a large social media following, tweeted that he was pushing forward with an appeal, adding: “[W]e’re not only going to work to reverse the conviction but try to change this absurd computer law, as best we can.”
Reached by phone after the decision, Keys added, “It’s fairly common knowledge at this point that this was a very heavy-handed prosecution.”
In a short post on Medium before the hearing, Keys wrote, “I hope that our combined efforts help bring about positive change to rules and regulations that govern our online conduct.”
He further argued that prosecutors have overly broad discretion to bring excessively punitive terrorism charges against people for minor offenses online. “Until the law catches up with the times, there’s no doubt that prosecutors will do it again,” he wrote.
Keys, now 29, was fired from his job as a social media editor at Reuters news agency when prosecutors first filed charges in 2013.
He has continued reporting as his case has moved forward.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an nonprofit defending civil liberties in the digital world, has argued that Keys’s case was an example of “prosecutorial discretion run amok”, criticizing the controversial federal anti-hacking statute known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
“This case underscores how computer crimes are prosecuted much more harshly than analogous crimes in the physical world,” the EFF wrote after he was convicted.
In the interview on Wednesday, Keys said he hoped his appeal would result in reforms. “We have a real shot of narrowing the applicability of the law so that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Regarding assertions that his crimes constituted terrorist acts, he added, “I think that anybody who has met me, anybody that’s followed my work would highly dispute that.”
“I didn’t ask for this fight, this fight came at my door,” he continued. “It was an opportunistic prosecutor that seized the moment.”
Keys said he was hopeful that his attorneys could fight the conviction and sentence, saying he intends to keep practicing journalism. “Being able to continue working is very important to me. I’m not going away soon.”
Federal officials praised the sentencing in statements after the hearing.
“This sentence serves as a warning that those who engage in this type of behavior face harsh penalties,” Tom Osborne, the FBI’s assistant special agent in charge, said in a statement.
US attorney Benjamin Wagner added, “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.”
This article was written by Sam Levin in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th April 2016 01.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010