Matthew Keys, a 28-year-old journalist from Vacaville, offers a succinct description of his Wednesday conviction on federal computer hacking charges.
Keys, who in theory could face 25 years in prison for his conviction on three counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, says that pithy summary applies to the government's entire case against him.
In 2013, a federal grand jury in Sacramento indicted Keys, a former employee of the Tribune Media Co.'s KTXL-Fox 40, alleging he helped unnamed individuals in the hacker group Anonymous gain access to Tribune servers. With that access, the indictment charged, hackers managed to alter an article on the Los Angeles Times site.
The alteration -- a changed headline, subhead and byline -- was reportedly visible for about 40 minutes before system administrators took it down. Court documents say the hacking cost Tribune nearly $18,000 for the 333 hours that employees spent responding to the hack. But Keys' attorneys said restoring the story took less than an hour and the cost falls below the $5,000 loss required to make the violation a felony.
Benjamin Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said Wednesday's verdict struck a blow against disgruntled employees and others "who use the Internet to carry out personal vendettas against former employers."
For his part, Keys says the government -- and the jury -- got the case all wrong. Here's how Keys, whose resume includes a brief, tumultuous stop as a social media editor at Reuters, described what he says really happened to Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica:
As Keys tells it, he was merely gathering information as a journalist about Anonymous, but did not have his IRC handle [AESCracked] registered -- so, he supposes, someone else, using an entirely different IP address, was using that nickname instead. As part of a broader investigation into anonymous, the FBI apparently came knocking at his door.
“The FBI asked me if they could scan my computer and when I told them no, then a few months later, they bring a criminal investigation against me? That's total bullshit,” Keys said. ...
... He also notes that by December 2010, he hadn’t worked for Tribune Media in three months, and had no access to their system after his departure.
“This case is about a journalist who wasn't complicit with the feds when they asked,” Keys added. “There is no question about what this case is, none. This is about them approaching a journalist and then deciding to profile that journalist as a criminal. And it's bullshit, it's absolute bullshit. Meanwhile whatever attack occurred against Tribune, not a single thing is done. As a journalist that should frighten the hell out of you.”
And Keys told the Washington Post:
“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.”
Keys now works as an editor for crowdsourced news site Grasswire. Site cofounder Levi Notik said in a blog post Thursday that Keys "is a very capable and talented individual and we have no concerns about his integrity as a journalist. He will remain employed at Grasswire as the judicial process runs its course. "
Keys' attorney, Jay Leiderman, says he'll appeal Wednesday's verdict and is among many questioning the possible severity of the sentence. The minimum Keys could get is probation. The maximum is 25 years.
“He shouldn’t be doing a day in jail,” Leiderman told the Post. “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?”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal, who tried the case, told reporters after the verdict, “This is not the crime of the century, but you cannot do this stuff. It is illegal and for a good reason.”
A spokesperson for the prosecutors said Wednesday the sentence they'll seek is likely to be less than five years.
Sentencing is set for January.
This post includes reporting from the Associated Press.