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Matthew Keys is an American journalist, who is the Managing Editor of Grasswire, a social news site. On October 7, 2015, he was found guilty of giving computer credentials to members of the Anonymous group who then hacked into his former employer. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Keys talks about his time in prison, where he spent his time refurbishing computers.
The case was serious enough to convict me, only for me to wind up refurbishing computers so the government can make money. The irony is not lost on me…I always assumed that I would be on the front lines when the shit did finally hit the fan. That’s not what wound up happening. Instead I ended up sitting back and watching the world burn.
In an interview with Ars Technica, Keys says there will be no further appeal, that he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted, and that he wants to return to journalism.
I hope that I’m privileged enough to find work in journalism. I work hard, and I’m smart, but I do have an uphill battle going forward…I came to terms with the fact that I suffer from mental illness. Being online and constantly throwing myself into work—I wasn’t getting help. [Now] I’m eating better, I look better, I feel better. I still struggle with depression and anxiety…I would like to go back into journalism. I’ve had a very small number of people come up to me with leads and with prospective job opportunities. I’m currently tiptoeing around [Bureau of Prison] rules with respect to what I can and cannot do while I’m still here. So I am open to all offers; it’s a matter of when I can act on them. I think I could start acting on them now, but a lot of it is trial and error.
Keys is released from the Satellite Prison Camp Atwater, in Atwater, California, after serving out most of his two-year sentence. He is living in a halfway house for two months as one of the conditions of his release.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals rules (ruling) that it was not persuaded by arguments made by Keys’ defense attorney, saying that the damage went beyond the mere alteration, as Keys created new accounts, and there was a fervent effort to contain the defacement. Court:
Prior to Keys’s conduct, the CMS existed in a certain state of security. Keys made the CMS far weaker by taking and creating new user accounts. This manipulation of user accounts and login credentials (not Keys’s access) impaired the system.
I am extremely disappointed in their decision. Until I have a chance to review their opinion, I will have no further comment.
Keys sends a five-page letter (source) to President Obama, asking him to intercede in his case, arguing that federal statute is being misapplied and that a sentence of two years in prison over such an event is excessive.
Although I do not understand the nuances of law, I am aware that at this point only presidential intervention in the form of a commutation of sentence or a presidential pardon can prevent the execution of this draconian sentence. Therefore, I respectfully request your assistance in advocating on my behalf for President Obama to review my case and consider using any and all executive powers afforded to him in preventing my scheduled incarceration and any other provision of the sentence for his he feels is unjustified and unwarranted. Doing so would not only reverse what many consider to be an unwarranted sentence triggered by an overzealous prosecutor based on a draconian and outdated law, it will allow me to continue serving the public as a journalist.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals announces that there is nothing novel about Keys’ conviction and that he is likely to lose on appeal. Therefore, the court rules (source), he should begin serving his time even while his appeal is pending.
Appellant has not shown that the appeal raises a “substantial question” of law or fact that is “fairly debatable,” and that “if that substantial question is determined favorably to defendant on appeal, that decision is likely to result in reversal or an order for a new trial of all counts on which imprisonment has been imposed,” or a sentence that does not include a term of imprisonment, or a reduced sentence to a term of imprisonment less than the total of the time already served plus the expected duration of the appeal process.
Not sure when I'll have to go in. I'll keep you all posted. Short of a presidential commutation, nothing else we can do.
Keys’ lawyers file an emergency motion with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (source), allowing Keys to stay out of prison. The request is filed just hours after the federal judge who presided over Keys’ trial and sentencing, US District Judge Mueller denied a similar motion for release pending appeal. Keys’ defense attorney says that because the defacement that occurred at the Times was ultimately corrected from a backup, no damage was actually inflicted.
The damage minimum is a jurisdictional requirement of a CFAA charge. Without damage, there can be no conviction. Courts across the country have denied damage findings even in more extreme cases where files were deleted but recoverable.
An automatic stay has issued in the @MatthewKeysLive case. He will not be reporting to prison today.
Ars Technica reports that hours before Keyes was sentenced, they received a letter (link) from an anonymous source, called “Sam Snow”, saying that Keys was wrongfully accused. In the letter, Snow described himself as someone who met Keys on a dating website in 2009. The pair dated briefly, but they eventually decided to just be friends. Eventually, Snow says, Keys gave him a key to his apartment, with an open invitation to come by anytime he wanted. Snow then describes how he did the actions Keys is accused of.
[Keys] never gave a username and password for any computer system to any hacker or hacking group. He never conspired to hack his former employer, and he never sent e-mails to any of his co-workers or the audience of the TV station where he worked. I know he did not do any of the things for which he has been accused—because I did them, and again this is something I can prove.
Keys tells Ars that he did not send the letter and declines further comment. Keys’ lawyers say that they had received a copy of the letter in January 2016 (it is dated January 3, 2015), but that it was far too late and contained far too little verifiable proof to be useful in Keys’ defense.
It’s fairly common knowledge at this point that this was a very heavy-handed prosecution. We have a real shot of narrowing the applicability of the law so that this doesn’t happen to anybody else. Regarding assertions that his crimes constituted terrorist acts, he added, “I think that anybody who has met me, anybody that’s followed my work would highly dispute that. I didn’t ask for this fight, this fight came at my door. It was an opportunistic prosecutor that seized the moment…Being able to continue working is very important to me. I’m not going away soon.
Judge Mueller sentences Keys to 24 months in prison, with 24 months supervised release following. The judge limits the amount of loss (for purposes of sentencing) to whatever had been presented at trial, determining that the appropriate range for sentencing was between 37 and 46 month Her final judgement, considering mitigating factors such as Keys’s otherwise clean record, his history of complying with law enforcement, and the unlikeliness that he would reoffend, is lower than her own recommendation. Mueller:
I think the parties agree, it’s not the crime of the century. [The effect of the defacement was] relatively modest and did not do much to actually damage the reputation of that publication [but that she could not ignore that his] intent was to wreak further damage which could have had further consequences…The mask that Mr. Keys put on appeared to allow a heartless character to utter lines that are unbecoming of the professional journalist that he holds himself to be, and is, in most respects, in fact.
[W]e’re not only going to work to reverse the conviction but try to change this absurd computer law, as best we can.
Those who use the internet to carry out personal vendettas against former employers should know that there are consequences for such conduct.
Keys is to surrender to a facility—likely a prison in Lompoc, California—on June 15. His defense says it is planning an appeal.
Keys’ defense lawyers file a 69-page sentencing memorandum, asking the court to impose no prison time at all or go with a “non-custodial sentence.” The filing goes to great lengths to illustrate Keys lengthy history in journalism, going way back to his elementary school days when he edited the school bulletin.
In recent years, Matthew’s sacrifices have paid off in the form of impactful journalism that has received national attention. His stories have encouraged discourse, influenced policy and won the attention and accolades from his peers in the industry, public interest groups and even law enforcement officials…[Keys] faces a far more severe sentence than any member of Lulzsec served. 60 months, which the Government seeks, would be more than any person engaged in hacking crimes during this period—by about double!
Keys lawyers say that that the pre-sentencing guidelines presented to the court by a probation officer miscalculated the losses to the Times as a result of the Anonymous hack, resulting in an overly harsh potential sentence. Their argument notes that revenge porn pioneer Hunter Moore received only 2.5 years for “far worse and far more harmful behavior” than Keys’. The lawyers also say that the sentencing guidelines have little to do with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was not charged, nor was he convicted of, unauthorized access to a computer and obtaining information, but actually charged with ‘“know[ing].. transmission of a program, information, code, or command, [the result of which] intentionally causes damage without authorization to a protected computer.”
Imposing a sentence of over seven years and roughly $250,000 in speculative restitution is a draconian sentence for a minor occurrence that could have been more appropriately handled by a civil lawsuit instead of three federal felony criminal convictions.
Wired reports that while Federal agents have known the identity of the hacker in Key’s case, the have not charged him. This is mainly because the hacker, known as ‘Sharpie,” is a 35-year-old man living in Stirling, Scotland. The FBI gave information about Sharpie to London’s Metropolitan Police, who passed it to the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. The SCDEA say they did not pursue charges because investigators never received enough information from US authorities to open a case. Keys’ lawyer:
I think it illustrates the difference in approach to hacking crimes in the UK as opposed to the United States. It wasn’t that big of a deal [to them] what happened. [The U.S. approach] is a disproportionate response to a minor event.
Motherboard’s Jeong reviews the case and interviews both Keys and the prosecutor about the outcome. Keys:
[My] only crime is committing the act of journalism…Everything I’ve done since Day 1 as a journalist has been in the interest of the public. That hasn’t changed. The charges didn’t change that, the conviction won’t change that, either.
The evidence at trial was that Matthew Keys gave a malicious online hacking group super-user credentials to the Los Angeles Times, and told them to… mess stuff up [actually “go f-ck some shit up]. And what he did after that when they didn’t mess stuff up enough to his liking, is that he took a link to an article that the Los Angeles Times had published, and said that this is why the Los Angeles Times must be ‘demolished.’ I don’t understand how any person, journalist or not, could consider that journalism or promoting the First Amendment. That is a serious threat to all the things that the First Amendment is supposed to protect.
A jury of 11 women and 1 man find Keys guilty on all three counts: conspiracy to commit computer hacking, transmission of malicious code causing unauthorized damage to a protected computer, and attempting to transmit malicious code to cause unauthorized damage to a protected computer. He faces a maximum of 25 years and will be sentenced on Jan 20, 2016. His lawyers say he will appeal. FBI:
This case demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to identify and investigate those who harass former employers by using insider knowledge to intentionally exploit computer systems—whether directly or by proxy—to damage the reputation and operations of a business. Individuals who use ‘bully’ tactics to attack computer networks will face justice for their actions.
The government wanted to send a clear message that if you want to cover a group they don’t agree with, and you’re not complicit with them [the government], they will target you.
During opening arguments, Keys lawyer tells the jury his client is not guilty because he neither intended to cause damage, nor actually caused the amount of damage that the government alleges. The defense argues that Keys was in the Anonymous IRC channel as a journalist, looking to write up a “headline-grabbing story” about Anonymous. His lawyers say a major issue is whether Key’s actions were “low-level vandalism, or high-level, high-damage hacking,” and note the defaced article was changed back in an hour.
Matthew Keys did not know as much as the government says he knew. He did not know the true capabilities of the others in the chatroom with him.
Prosecutors claim that the Tribune spent over $5,000 to fix the defacement. They claims to have a recording of Keys confessing, “I did it,” as well as a written confession.
Austen and I have similar thoughts and ideas when it comes to the future of news gathering and reporting, and I’m incredibly excited at some of the things that are in store for Grasswire’s community that we both hope will provoke and influence the digital news industry.
Keller is let go as director of social media for Bloomberg Businessweek after Keys tweets two-month-old private messages from Keller in apparent retaliation for Keller leaking a conversation to Gizmodo in March, when news of Keys’s indictment first broke. In the DMs Keller says, “I f-cking hate it here,” and disparages his employer.
Today was my last day at Bloomberg. It was a great run at a great company.
Reuters claims that during my coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, I violated a grievance aired by the company in a written warning issued in October 2012, explicitly that the company “must see immediate improvement in your communication with managers and more discretion in your social media practices.” (The company does not define what “more discretion” is)…Reuters said they particularly disagreed with my decision to continue tweeting scanner traffic after several other news organizations had reported a request from the Boston Police Department to not tweet information heard on scanner traffic.
Keys says his independent coverage of the events of the Boston marathon, where he tweeted information from police scanners that ended up being incorrect, was one of the reasons he was given for his termination.
I assume they were looking for an out…It’s my understanding that Reuters did not agree with some of the coverage I did on my own during the Boston Marathon events from last week. And they have a specific set of reasons for the termination which I don’t agree with and the union that represents me does not agree with. We are in agreement, the union and myself, that I have done nothing wrong, that the basis for the termination is incorrect and doesn’t hold any water.
Department of Justice charges Keys in connection with the attack. He faces three counts: 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. The two substantive counts carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. The conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. Reuters, his current employer:
Any legal violations, or failures to comply with the company’s own strict set of principles and standards, can result in disciplinary action. We would also observe the indictment alleges the conduct occurred in December 2010; Mr. Keys joined Reuters in 2012, and while investigations continue we will have no further comment.
Keys receives a final written warning from Reuters about using a parody account to mock Larry Page, while employed at the company.
Although you eventually revealed yourself as the owner of the account, this series of actions displayed a serious lack of judgement and professionalism that is unbecoming of a Reuters journalist…Reuters journalists are never to misrepresent themselves. The creation of a fake account that did not identify you as the author clearly violates our Social Media Policy. The parody account, which disparages a public figure, also undermines our goal to provide an unbiased and reliable news service to our clients…Furthermore, the fake account embarrassed our News reporting team, and has possibly damaged our relationship with a company that we have covered aggressively.
Keys creates a parody account called @PendingLarry which mocks the early release of financial data by Google’s Larry Page. The account is mentioned widely in the press, including on Reuters own wire service.
Keys is visited by the FBI, who show him a search warrant with 50 pages of chat transcripts. They interview him on his bed, in his pyjamas. He writes a confession for both the Cancerman emails and the LA Times defacement.
I am extremely remorseful for both actions, and am fully willing to cooperate with any agency on this or any other matters, and cooperate now and in the foreseeable future.
Keys is profiled as one of Time magazine’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2012.
If it’s news, Matthew Keys will probably tweet it out. He’s a curator of a timely cycle of news tweets, the stuff you probably haven’t seen yet. Keys is joining the ranks of news editors who dole out news as it breaks.
Keys sends a series of emails to his colleagues at Fox 40, under aliases related to the TV show, The X Files. The “Cancerman emails” outline various grievances the writer has with the company’s ethics, including claims that the station dropped a news story because the subject threatened to pull its advertisements, and that the station invaded viewers’ privacy through a contest email promotion. Keys then sends emails to the contest email list about KTXL Fox 40’s perceived misconduct. Fox40, already on edge from the threats, spends hours fielding emails from upset viewers. Later Keys admits to sending the emails saying:
The emails was, was to be antagonistic, you know…It was more or less hooliganism.
Keys identifies himself on an Internet chat forum as a former Tribune Company employee and provides members of Anonymous with a login and password to the Tribune Company server. He encourages the Anonymous members to disrupt several Tribune companies and urged that the Los Angeles Times should be “demolished.” Keys:
Go f-ck some shit up.
Hackers uses the credentials provided by Keys to log in to the Tribune Company server and make changes to the web version of a Los Angeles Times news feature, changing a headline to read: “Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337.”
Hacker: [T]hat was such a buzz having my edit on the LA Times
Keys also changes the access credentials of FOX40 employees, interfering with their ability to access company servers, and obtained email addresses for FOX40 viewers, to whom he sends disparaging emails about the company. According the the company Keys’ actions caused the mobile version of the Times to be offline for a day, and resulted in thousands of dollars in costs for the Tribune Company in responding to the breach of its systems by shutting backdoor access credentials and assessing the full extent of the damage.
According to the FBI, after he leaves the company Keys retains the passwords to Fox40’s social media accounts, and prevents access to them by the company. He sends messages from the accounts to the public. He also deletes thousands followers from the company’s account.
After two and a half years at Fox 40, Keys is pulled up by his boss for criticizing the station’s coverage of a fire at a local mall, from his personal Twitter account. Keys tells his boss that he wants to exert his right to say what he wanted on his personal Twitter feed. His boss tells him to go home and not to work over the weekend. Keys says he cannot guarantee that, and never returns to work. Keys is terminated. He retains the passwords for the company’s content management system.