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Journalist Convicted Of Aiding Anonymous Newspaper Hack

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Journalist jailed for two years for helping Anonymous hack the computer system of his former employer, the LA Times

Journalist Matthew Keys has been sentenced to two years in prison, after he was convicted of helping the Anonymous hacking collective gain access to the computer systems of Tribune Media.

Tribune Media was the former employer of Keys, and it owns a number of media outlets in the United States including the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun.

Disgruntled Employee?

Matthew KeysIt also owned KTXL FOX40, a Sacramento television station, where Keys used to work as a web producer and network site administrator before he was reportedly fired.

Key then joined the Reuters news agency as deputy social media editor, before he was charged in March 2013 for conspiring with Anonymous to help break into systems of his previous company.

He was accused of handing over his login details for the Tribune Company in 2010 in an online chatroom to an Anonymous hacker, who then accessed the Tribune Content Management System (CMS) and changed the headline of a 2010 LA Times story.

The change itself was reportedly relatively trivial, as the hacker simply changed the LA Times article headline from “Pressure builds in house to pass tax-cut package” to “Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337.”

The original article was restored within 40 minutes, and Tribune blocked access to its content management system soon thereafter.

When Keys found out about the defacement of the Los Angeles Times page, he was alleged to have responded by saying, “nice”.

But Keys was charged as acting as a disgruntled ex-employee of Tribune, and last October he was convicted of three criminal counts under a controversial anti-computer-hacking law (the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act).

Keys had been potentially been facing a maximum prison sentence of 25 years, as well as fines of up to $500,000 (£353,000). US prosecutors had been seeking a five year prison sentence, while Keys himself had been hoping for probation.

Draconian Law?

The case has attracted public attention because of the “draconian” computer law he was prosecuted under.

“The past three years have been exceptionally challenging - for me personally and for my professional career as a journalist,” said Keys. “I’d like to recognise the publishers, editors and writers who were able to see through the baseless, absurd and entirely wrong accusations levied against me and who continued to find value in the work I produced.

“I am innocent, and I did not ask for this fight. Nonetheless, I hope that our combined efforts help bring about positive change to rules and regulations that govern our online conduct. As I’ve previously written, nobody should face terrorism charges for passing a Netflix username and password.

“But under today’s law, prosecutors can use their discretion to bring those exact charges against people – including journalists – whenever they see fit. Prosecutors did so in this case. Until the law catches up with the times, there’s no doubt that prosecutors will do it again.”

Civil Liberties

HSBCAnd the Keys case has gained the backing of the civil liberties group The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said the case was an example of “prosecutorial discretion run amok”.

“One of the basic tenets of a civilized society is that the punishment should be proportionate with the crime,” said the EFF. “What essentially amounts to vandalism should not result in even the remote possibility of a 25-year jail sentence.

“The case is an illustration of prosecutorial discretion run amok – and once again shows why reform of the federal anti-hacking statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), is long overdue,

“The government certainly seems to be making an example out of Matthew Keys. Meanwhile, the government hasn’t even gone after the individual who actually made the changes to the LA Times article.”

Warning To Others

But US prosecutors have shrugged off criticism of the conviction and said in a statement that his conviction should act as a warning to others thinking of engaging in this type of behaviour.

“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,” said US Attorney Wagner. “Although he did no lasting damage, Keys did interfere with the business of news organisations, 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.”

“Matthew Keys will spend the next two years in prison,” added Assistant Special Agent in Charge Tom F. Osborne. “This sentence serves as a warning that those who engage in this type of behaviour face harsh penalties.

“Ultimately, his downfall came from playing his former employer against Anonymous, while holding himself out as a professional journalist,” said United States District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller. “The mask that Mr. Keys put on appeared to allow a heartless character to utter lines that are unbecoming a journalist.”

She ordered Keys to begin serving his jail sentence on 15 June.

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