(Mint Press) – Last week, the United States Department of Justice indicted Matthew Keys, a social media editor at Reuters, on computer crime charges. The government alleges that Keys helped hacktivist group, Anonymous, deface the website of his former employer — KTXL FOX 40. Keys has denied charges that he conspired to help members of Anonymous […]
(Mint Press) – Last week, the United States Department of Justice indicted Matthew Keys, a social media editor at Reuters, on computer crime charges. The government alleges that Keys helped hacktivist group, Anonymous, deface the website of his former employer — KTXL FOX 40. Keys has denied charges that he conspired to help members of Anonymous gain access to the computer system.
Keys is charged in an indictment filed March 14 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California for conspiracy to cause damage to a protected computer (part of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was enacted in the 1980s), transmission of malicious code, attempted transmission of malicious code and forfeiture allegation. A guilty verdict can carry a maximum of 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
According to the Justice Department, between Dec. 10 and Dec. 15, 2010, Keys — under the username “AESCracked” — worked with Anonymous hackers to “make unauthorized changes to web sites that the Tribune Company used to communicate news features to the public; and to damage computer systems used by the Tribune Company.”
Keys, according to the government, entered into communication with members of Anonymous via the chatroom #internetfeds. At one point in the conversation, Keys said, “it takes a while to grant one username permission to every site. I’m doing that now,” according to the indictment.
It is argued that Anonymous used the credentials provided by Keys to hack the Los Angeles Times’ computer network (both KTXL FOX 40 and the Los Angeles Times are owned by the Tribune Company and share a common extranet) and alter a story on the Times’ website. Keys allegedly attempted to use a Virtual Private Network to “cover [his] tracks” but discovered that Tribune had cut off his account.
“I’m locked out for good,” Keys wrote, according to the DOJ indictment. “:(.”
The federal investigation into Keys began Dec. 1, 2010 when KTXL noticed that the station’s email contact list has been compromised and a producer started to receive unsolicited emails from an unknown person who claimed to have the list. Keys, who was in charge of the station’s social media, changed the passwords on KTXL’s Twitter and Facebook accounts in an attempt to keep others from accessing them and deleted about 6,000 followers from the station’s Twitter account. The producer who contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — and fired Keys — regained access four days later.
There is disagreement over why or how Keys left KTXL. Keys argued that he left over a disagreement with his boss, only to be fired shortly afterward. Keys argued on his blog that he gave his boss “a reason to let me go when an argument ensued in front of the newsroom over — of all things — a tweet.” KTXL paperwork shows that he was “laid off.” He called Tribune a “bankrupt news organization that didn’t value its employees on the assembly line.”
Shortly after the beginning of the FBI investigation, Keys allegedly told the producer that he was communicating with Anonymous and that he “had access to future Anonymous operations including operations against PayPal, Amazon, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News and others.”
Two days later, the hacking of the Times’ website happened. It is also alleged that Keys asked on the #internetfeds chatroom if anyone wanted his list of email addresses and access to the content management system for KTXL. The FBI has stated that Keys posted “if you want to attack fox news, pm me. i have user/password for their cms.”
Members of Anonymous have came forward in regard to Keys’ involvement and culpability. A hacker that uses the online hander “Kayla” wrote in a March 2011 chat that Keys “was the one who gave us passwords for [sic] LA times, fox40 and some others.” In addition, the chat logs between Keys and Hector Xavier Monsegur — leader of LulzSec who was arrested in 2010 and has since become a FBI informant on Anonymous — has been obtained. Monsegur used the handle “Sabu.”
According to the log, as alleged by the FBI:
Sabu: that would be nice to get access to fox. let me know if I can get access. I want to see if I can get further in.
AESCracked: I’m not a hacker.
AESCracked: I’m an ex-employee
After revealing the access credentials, Keys allegedly told the hackers to “go f**k some s**t up!”
On January 2011, Keys was banned from the #internetfeds chatroom for leaking information to the media.
The dangers of getting too close
On March 7, 2012, Keys wrote for Reuters “The InternetFeds: Inside hacker Sabu’s war room,” which detailed Keys’ “investigation” into Anonymous and “Sabu.” Keys also attested that he gave chatroom logs of his time on #internetfeds to PBS Newshour.
An attorney for Keys, Jay Leiderman, argues that his client is being persecuted for writing about a federal target. “This is sort of an undercover-type, investigative journalism thing, and I know undercover — I’m using that term loosely,” Leiderman said. “This is a guy who went where he needed to go to get the story. He went into the sort of dark corners of the Internet. He’s being prosecuted for that, for going to get the story.”
Keys’ other attorney, Tor Ekeland, picked up on this sentiment. “It looks like the government is essentially indicting a reporter under the [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] for writing about Anonymous,” Ekeland said.
In the aftermath of the Aaron Swartz case — in which the Justice Department prosecuted Swartz for computer crimes against a victim that did not wish to press charges — many have argued that this case is another attempt by the Justice Department to press another high-profile Internet security case. But, this may not be the case here.
This is a case about journalistic ethics and objectivity in journalism. In order to get the story, sometimes it is necessary that a reporter “embed” with the subject that the reporter wishes to cover, which may mean traveling with a military brigade, “posing” as a gang member or joining a political rally. However, at all times, the reporter’s first loyalty is to the story: getting the facts in an unbiased manner so that the reader will be informed.
On the NDAA
Recently, journalists have been forced to question their rights to “embed” into hazardous foreign scenarios since the United States implemented the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which grants the United States the right to arrest and detain without trial any agent of al-Qaeda or any “associated force.”
Journalist Chris Hedges asked rhetorically, “What’s an associated force? It could be any organization on [America’s terrorism] list, or lots of other organizations that aren’t on the list that are considered associated forces. This is the problem. I spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and when we went through that list, there were 17 groups, including al Qaeda, that I have had, as a reporter, direct contact with. There is no provision in there to protect journalists at all, or anyone. Anybody can be swept up under this. You don’t want to hand these kinds of powers to the state, because history has shown that, eventually, they will use it.”
It is clear that the right to report the news must be protected. “We’ve already seen from the Stratfor email releases, they’ve already [connected Occupy with terrorists],” Hedges continued. “Alexa O’Brien, who is one of the plaintiffs [in the failed lawsuit against the federal government over NDAA], lost her job because after these kind of accusations, U.S. government officials went to her employer and made investigations or queries about her. She was pulled off projects and eventually pushed out of her work. That is an example of the kind of world we are entering if we are not able to strike back against this legislation.”
However, cases such as Keys actually give those that would oppress and restrict news coverage ammunition, as the Keys case represents an actual crime committed and an actual investigation into that crime. The reporter retains ultimate responsibility for his words — not only what he writes, but how he/she came about writing it.
When the reporter becomes a part of the story, the story ceases to be news. Juda Engelmeyer, a senior vice president for 5W, a news and media consultancy, argues that “a journalist doing his job well and in the true tradition of fine journalism, can safely embed him/herself into a story as deep as needed to get the inside scoop. When a reporter begins to take sides, or see[s] the story from the side of the ones with whom he infiltrates, he no longer has credibility. He becomes emotionally compromised and cannot legitimately report from an objective stance.”
“A journalist who can act as an espionage agent, embed himself and truly see the inside, but yet knows that his loyalties are to the readers, the audience and the truth, is worthy of a Pulitzer,” Engelmeyer continued. “If he has an opinion, however, forms an emotional bond and takes a side, he needs to save the story for an editorial or an opinion piece and not for the news sections of the papers or programs.”