Feds attempting to deter hacktivism with dubious charges, hefty sentences

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Prosecutors around the country are sending a clear message to hackers and activists who want to use their computers to promote a political ideology: We plan to throw the book at you.

The latest example is a fresh, 12-count indictment that was returned last week against Barrett Brown, the sometimes-spokesman of prominent hacktivist group Anonymous, who in October was charged with threatening an FBI agent in a YouTube video. The new indictment charges the Dallas man with sharing an easily obtainable URL that linked back to a "dump" of credit card information allegedly stolen in the attack on Stratfor, a global intelligence firm whose clients largely consist of U.S. government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. What is important to note, however, is that Brown is not charged with committing the attack or profiting from it.

According to the indictment, "By transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online, without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor and the cardholders."

It's a dubious charge and one which should be cause for concern for journalists everywhere who report on incidents of hacking and include similar links in their stories.

But, the charge also is not something that is particularly surprising. More and more, prosecutors are using all available means, aided by an antiquated federal anti-hacking law, in an attempt to discourage internet-based dissent and deliver stiff penalties to those who seek to agitate the powerful.

“Increasingly, it's become clear that the government recognizes these criminal cases as pivotal to seize back control, so it can continue to operate in secret when it wants to, immune from public scrutiny, without risking embarrassment or revelations of wrongdoing.”

For instance, longtime political activist Jeremy Hammond, an Illinois man accused of helping to orchestrate the Stratfor hack, faces life in prison, and has been denied bail and added to the terrorist watch list. By comparison, as InformationWeek's Matthew Schwartz astutely points out, a Russian man who stole $3 million by hacking into the bank accounts of U.S. mom-and-pop businesses recently pleaded guilty – and received a two-year sentence.

There's the harsh, borderline tortuous, detainment of Army Pfc. and whistleblower Bradley Manning, who next year finally will stand trial over charges he "aided the enemy" when he allegedly handed over sensitive – but quite revealing – U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. He could be sentenced to death, though prosecutors have said they will not pursue that punishment.

And let's not forget the so-called "PayPal 14," a group of mostly 20-somethings who are staring at 15 years in prison over felony accusations that they downloaded a tool that allowed them to temporarily disrupt access to PayPal, after the site suspended access to WikiLeaks' donation account at the behest of U.S. lawmakers and the State Department. A defense attorney in the case contends that the purported acts of his clients amount to nothing more than the digital version of a lunch counter sit-in.

All of these cases share a theme: Often under the guise of national security, a notably heavy-handed prosecutorial effort is underway to stem the flow of information from government agencies and powerful corporations. Increasingly, it's become clear that the government recognizes these criminal cases as pivotal to seize back control, so it can continue to operate in secret when it wants to, immune from public scrutiny, without risking embarrassment or revelations of wrongdoing. If would-be hacktivists see that people like Brown, Manning, Hammond and the "PayPal 14" are being treated like enemies of the state, they may be less likely to commit similar acts.

Make no mistake, deterrence is a critical element to law enforcement. But we are a country built on the rule of law. As such, it is incumbent upon all citizens, regardless of one's political views, to ensure that we all get an equal shot at justice.



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