One of the Internet's more entertaining and controversial gadflies was arrested last night (Sept. 12) in a dramatic police raid that was viewed online.
Barrett Brown, a Dallas-based journalist who has worked with the hacktivist movement Anonymous and sought to uncover secrets about Mexican drug cartels and American domestic surveillance networks, was conducting an online video chat with several other people when off-screen voices began shouting.
A woman on Brown's screen, whom Brown described as his girlfriend, turned her head to see what was going on and then shut off Brown's webcam. (Brown had stepped away from his computer, presumably to answer the door.)
Other participants in the video chat at first thought it was a hoax, but Brown's booking information was posted on the website of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department later that night. (The sheriff's department later took down the page.)
A spokeswoman in the sheriff's department confirmed to Wired News that Brown had been arrested and turned over to the FBI. Jay Leiderman, a California lawyer who has represented several Anonymous-related defendants, told Wired News that Brown would be charged with threatening a federal agent.
Taking on the big boys
Brown, 31, a named source for several SecurityNewsDaily stories, had been picking a fight for the past few days with an FBI agent he identified as Robert Smith.
Brown accused Smith of harassing Brown's mother during a previous raid in March, in which FBI agents came looking for Brown at his mother's house. (Brown was not arrested in the raid, which coincided with the arrests of suspected members of the Anti-Sec hacker group.)
"Threat to put my mom in prison last mistake #AgentRobertSmith will ever [expletive] make," Brown tweeted early yesterday, linking to a YouTube video in which Brown demanded the return of his seized property and complained about media coverage of domestic-surveillance issues.
He argued that simply looking for publicly available information on private citizens, even the children of a law-enforcement officer, was not illegal.
Brown, who is calm and well-spoken in person, has a history of going after powerful figures. Last fall he threatened to post online Mexican government emails naming members of Los Zetas, a feared Mexican cocaine cartel, unless the Zetas released a purported Anonymous member whom they had kidnapped. (The dispute, if it was real, was concluded peacefully.)
"The idea that I should refrain from assisting in the naming of probable criminals operating in a foreign country without a working judicial system lest I be murdered is a cowardly sentiment," Brown wrote at the time. "No individual living in the free world should refrain from working to fight injustice simply because there is a possibility of retaliation."
In the past two weeks, Brown also had been part of an Anonymous crusade against the New York Times, arguing that the newspaper deliberately ignores information Brown and others have unearthed about TrapWire, Team Themis and other apparent private-sector domestic-surveillance initiatives.
Anonymous, yet far from anonymous
Brown has been a divisive figure in the hacktivist movement ever since the media began calling him an Anonymous "spokesman," a label he consistently disavows.
"I was never a spokesman for Anonymous, which has no titles or a single view," he told SecurityNewsDaily last month. "[It] would be accurate to say 'longtime Anonymous ally' or 'writer who has worked with Anonymous'; the 'spokesman' thing has caused me a lot of problems."
Unlike most people affiliated with the overall hacktivist movement, Brown has never made a secret of his name, his hometown or even his former addiction to heroin.
Like a few other Anonymous affiliates, Brown has stayed on just the right side of the law, defending and explaining Anonymous attacks seemingly without taking part in them.
Eerily, Brown concluded his most recent YouTube clip yesterday with a fatalistic signoff.
"Frankly, it was pretty obvious I was going to be dead before I was 40 or so," he said. "I wouldn't mind going out with two FBI sidearms and a [expletive] Egyptian pharaoh. Adios."