Ex-Tribune Employee Convicted in Los Angeles Times Hack

  • Blogger Matthew Keys was accused of seeking revenge for firing
  • Keys faces as long as 25 years in prison, $750,000 fine

A former Tribune Media Co. employee was convicted of helping the Anonymous hacking collective gain access to the Los Angeles Times website to alter a story.

Matthew Keys, a well-known blogger, was accused of launching a cyber-attack on the media company out of revenge after he was fired in October 2010.

A federal jury in Sacramento, California, on Wednesday found Keys, 28, guilty of conspiracy to damage a protected computer, transmission of a malicious code and attempted transmission of a malicious code.

Keys, who was also accused of pilfering e-mail lists from his employer, could be sentenced to as long as 25 years in prison and a $750,000 fine. The government will probably seek a prison term of less than five years, said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento.

Prosecutors said Keys attacked Tribune after leaving his job at its KTXL Fox 40 television station in Sacramento. Keys said he left the station of his own accord. During a six-day trial, the government put on evidence that he sent viewers messages disparaging the station. 

Login Credentials

The jury of 11 women and one man also heard a recording of Keys admitting to the FBI that he gave Tribune login credentials to a hacker from the group Anonymous.

Keys, who was allowed by the judge to remain free without having to post bail after the verdict, is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 20. His attorneys said they would appeal the verdict.

“I think it’s hypocritical that the Department of Justice just a few months ago asked for the ability to hack into anybody’s computer,” Keys said Wednesday. “And yet they bring charges like this against somebody who is acting in the public interest, whose only crime it committing an act of journalism.”

Keys said he was researching Anonymous at the time of the Los Angeles Times hack and denied giving Tribune login credentials to hackers. He said quotes from his statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation were taken out of context.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal said Keys’ claim that his only crime was journalism was “ridiculous.” Segal said evidence showed that Keys gave Anonymous credentials to the Los Angeles Times and told them “to mess stuff up.”

The hacker gained entry to Chicago-based Tribune’s content-management system and changed the headline in the Web version of a Los Angeles Times story about the U.S. Congress. The original headline, “Pressure builds in House to pass tax-cut package,” became “Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337,” and a couple of lines in the story were also changed. The altered story was live for about 40 minutes before an editor noticed and fixed it. 

Defense Lawyers

Defense lawyers said the Times hack didn’t cause the company any losses because the damage was repaired in three minutes. The government said Keys cost the company more than $2 million, including more than $1.5 million on technology improvements in response to the attack.

The L.A. Times, then owned by Tribune Media, is now operated by Tribune Publishing Co. after a spinoff last year.

Keys was a rising star in the evolving field of social media journalism before he came to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2012, Time magazine cited him as the producer of one of that year’s “140 Best Twitter Feeds,” while the Huffington Post named him one of the “50 People in Media” to follow on Facebook.

Thomson Reuters Corp.’s news division hired Keys as a deputy social media editor. But in April 2013, a month after he was charged in connection with the Los Angeles Times hack, the company fired him, citing purported inaccuracies in his reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing. Thomson Reuters is a competitor of Bloomberg News.

The case is U.S. v. Keys, 13-cr-00082, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California (Sacramento).

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