Hack Group Spokesman Sentenced to 63 Months in Prison

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A Dallas man who acted as a spokesman for the underground hacker group Anonymous was sentenced to five years and three months in prison in a case that’s raised free-speech concerns among journalists and Internet activists.

Barrett Brown, 33, pleaded guilty in April to threatening an FBI agent, attempting to hide two laptops during the execution of a search warrant and offering to help another hacker. The charges involved a 2011 hack of Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor, which disclosed previously unknown information about the world of defense contractors.

“Mr. Brown collaborated with and supported the hackers,” U.S. District Judge Sam A. Lindsay in Dallas said Thursday in court. “He is more involved than he wants me to believe.”

Brown, who had been a freelance journalist, served as an informal spokesman for Anonymous after the group’s attacks on the websites of four companies that blocked contributions to the WikiLeaks site. The December 2011 hack of Austin, Texas-based Stratfor caused from $400,000 to $1 million in damage to its systems, according to a plea agreement.

Lindsay ordered Brown to pay $890,250 in restitution, prosecutors said in a statement after the hearing.

Posted Link

In court, Brown downplayed his role in the hacking organization, saying he merely posted a link. According to prosecutors, the December 2011 link pointed readers to online files where they could get access to thousands of pages of stolen credit card numbers.

“I want to make absolutely certain that your honor is made aware that the picture the government has painted of me is a false one,” Brown said at his sentencing.

Lindsay ruled during the hearing that Brown’s act of linking to a website containing stolen credit card data could be used against the defendant in the determination of his sentence.

“The court’s ruling today is that the posting of a link to publicly available information on a public website constituted trafficking of credit card information,” Marlo Cadeddu, Brown’s attorney, told reporters after the hearing. “That is what we find problematic.”

That interpretation adversely affects journalists and researchers who post links to materials, she said.

Brown’s case “is not going to chill any First Amendment rights of journalists,” Lindsay said during the hearing.

Stratfor Hack

As part of his 2014 guilty plea, Brown admitted he helped a person he knew as “o” after that person accessed Stratfor’s computers. During the hack, “o” defaced the company’s website, deleted files and took data from its network, according to court papers. Brown admitted he communicated with Stratfor on behalf of “o” to shield the person’s identity, according to the filing.

At a Dec. 16 hearing, FBI agent Robert Smith testified that “o” was Jeremy Hammond, 30, who was sentenced in 2013 to 10 years in prison for the hacks of Stratfor and various law enforcement agencies.

Smith said he discovered e-mails in Brown’s laptop that showed Brown helped Anonymous select potential hacking targets and strategized with others in the group.

“We’re the most effective process by which to smash the institutions that need smashing,” one e-mail read, according to Smith. Brown referred to his activities as a “guerrilla cyberwar,” Smith said.

113 Victims

In linking to hacked credit card numbers, Brown caused $18,000 to be stolen from 113 victims, Smith testified.

Brown was arrested in 2012 after he posted videos and tweets threatening a federal agent who was investigating him. Brown admitted in his guilty plea that he sent online messages threatening to “shoot and injure agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Brown’s lawyer sought leniency, arguing in court papers that he posted a link to material that was already public and was engaging in protected activity because he was addressing political issues, “namely the uncovering of improprieties within the private intelligence contracting industry.”

Cadeddu, Brown’s lawyer, urged the judge not to consider the link to the credit card data as part of sentencing because doing so could “chill” journalists who use links in their news-gathering. While prosecutors dismissed the linking charge last year, they urged the judge to consider the linking in determining Brown’s sentence.

Dropped Charge

Brown’s supporters included the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates against Internet restrictions. The group prepared a legal brief in support Brown, though it didn’t file it in court because prosecutors dropped the linking charge.

Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in an interview that Brown had a right under the First Amendment to post the link.

“Our concern was that the government seemed to be saying that it’s a crime to merely point at material you are not supposed to have,” Fakhoury said.

The cases are U.S. v. Brown, 3:12-cr-00317, and 3:12-cr-00413, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas (Dallas).