Federal authorities in California today (March 14) charged a prominent tech journalist with helping Anonymous-affiliated hackers break into the corporate networks of his former employer.
Matthew Keys, 26, is currently deputy social-media editor at Thompson Reuters and based in New York. But in late 2010, a U.S. Department of Justice press release said, Keys had just lost his job as a Web producer at KTXL-TV, a Fox affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., owned by the Tribune Company.
Evidence suggests that Keys was indicted on the basis of evidence provided by Hector Monsegur, aka "Sabu," a former leader of Anonymous and founder of the splinter group LulzSec. Monsegur was arrested in June 2011 and became an FBI informant.
A Reuters spokesman told the Politico news website that Reuters was "looking into" the issue.
"I am fine," Keys told his followers on Twitter. "I found out the same way most of you did: From Twitter. Tonight I'm going to take a break. Tomorrow, business as usual."
Bad online company
The indictment says that in early December 2010, Keys went onto an Internet chat board using the handle "AESCracked."
There, the indictment alleges, Keys gave an Anonymous member, identified only as "Sharpie," login information to the Tribune Company's internal computer network.
From there, the indictment says, Sharpie was able to access the Los Angeles Times website's content-management system and make humorous changes to a news story. The Los Angeles Times is also owned by the Tribune Company.
The indictment further alleges that Keys had a subsequent conversation with Sharpie, who told Keys the Tribune system had locked him out.
Keys allegedly tried to give Sharpie a second username and password, which didn't work, and also expressed his approval of Sharpie's Times website defacement.
Kim Zetter, a reporter for Wired News, said in her article about Keys' indictment that Sharpie was actually Hector Monsegur, aka "Sabu," a top Anonymous hacker and leader of the temporary splinter group LulzSec, who was arrested in June 2011 and became a federal cooperating witness.
Zetter did not give evidence to support her allegation.
Forbes reporter Parmy Olson, who had interviewed Monsegur before his arrest, said Monsegur told her on March 11, 2011 that Keys had given Anonymous members access to Tribune Company servers.
On March 21, 2011, Monsegur tweeted, "AESCracked/Matt Keys was former producer for Tribune sites. Gave full control of LATimes.com to hackers."
Olson said she subsequently confronted Keys with the allegation, and that Keys denied it.
Framed by Sabu?
After his termination from KTXL, Keys worked for San Francisco TV station KGO-TV for a time before joining Reuters in January 2012.
One of Keys' first stories for Reuters was about a trans-Atlantic conference call between several law-enforcement agencies that was secretly recorded by Anonymous and subsequently posted online.
In March 2012, following the revelation that Monsegur had become a government informant, Keys posted a long story about conversing with Monsegur and other Anonymous hackers in December 2010 and January 2011 — exactly when the indictment said Keys was conspiring with Sharpie and other Anonymous members.
Keys mentioned the Los Angeles Times' website defacement, noting only that it added to the sense of collective paranoia because it had not been approved by the entire group.
Keys wrote that it was he who leaked a document from the Anonymous chat room to PBS in December 2010, and that he was not invited into the next Anonymous chat room once the previous one was closed down in January 2011.
On his Tumblr blog, Keys said on March 18, 2011, that was he who gave the Gawker blog chat transcripts concerning an Anonymous attack on Gawker.
Gawker named him as a source in an article entitled " Inside Anonymous' Secret War Room " published the same day.
Three days later, Monsegur used Twitter to accuse Keys of conspiring with Anonymous to hack the Los Angeles Times.
Keys said that he had identified himself as a journalist during all his chat-room interactions with Anonymous members, and that he'd never promised them confidentiality.
Keys appeared to be at work this afternoon, tweeting news as usual. But in response to correspondents' queries, he confirmed the indictment against him and retweeted a link to the Politico story about it.
Decades in prison for computer crimes
According to the Justice Department press release, Keys has been charged with "one count each of conspiracy to transmit information to damage a protected computer, transmitting information to damage a protected computer and attempted transmission of information to damage a protected computer."
All are violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, first passed in 1984 and subsequently amended several times.
The CFAA was recently used to prosecute Aaron Swartz, a young programmer and Internet millionaire who committed suicide in January after being charged with 13 counts for allegedly rapidly copying public-domain academic documents from an online repository.
Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison.
Another alleged hacker, Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer, was convicted in November under the CFAA and faces up to 10 years at his sentencing this coming Monday (March 18).
Auernheimer and another man had scraped information from a publicly accessible website belonging to AT&T.
Barrett Brown, a freelance journalist who occasionally explained Anonymous's actions to the media, was indicted in December under related statutes because he allegedly pasted a link to online repositories of stolen credit-card numbers into an online chatroom.
For those and for other charges, Brown faces at least 45 years in prison.
Keys, according to the Department of Justice press release, faces 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and the forfeiture of the computer equipment used to commit the crime.