Matthew Keys, the quintessential social media journalist and former online news producer and digital content creator for KTXL Fox 40, went on trial Monday in Sacramento federal court on a hacking conspiracy charge.
Keys was 26 and the deputy social media editor for British wire service Reuters when he was indicted in March 2013, accused of assisting the loosely organized and notorious global hacking collective Anonymous in an attack on the website of the Los Angeles Times, which, like Fox 40, was owned by Tribune Co.
The cyber-raid, which made national headlines, reportedly allowed an Anonymous associate with the handle “sharpie” to alter a news article. The headline, story title and byline were changed, according to the indictment.
The website administrators restored the original version in less than an hour.
Prosecutors say Keys provided Anonymous with login information for Tribune computers and encouraged the hackers, with whom they say he worked during a five-day period in December 2010, “to make unauthorized changes” and “to damage computer systems.” His liaison with Anonymous followed by two months Keys’ firing at Fox 40 for making disparaging remarks about his employer, according to a government trial brief.
The brief says Keys tried to drum up support on multiple Internet relay chat channels for an attack on Fox News or the Los Angeles Times. When others in the chat rooms resisted attacking the news media, Keys responded, “FOX News is not media. it’s ‘infotainment’ for inbreds. I say we target them,” according to the brief.
In October 2012, FBI agents executed a search warrant at Keys’ New Jersey residence and interviewed him. Evidence relating to the Los Angeles Times attack was found on his digital media, the trial brief says.
During the interview, Keys analogized his situation to that of a former “night manager at a retail store” who still had the keys to the store. He told agents he was willing to talk to them “because, you know, I did it,” the brief alleges.
In December 2013, Keys’ lawyers filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search and his statements to the agents.
But U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ruled the FBI had enough information to justify the search. As to the interview, the judge said in a written order that the government demonstrated to her satisfaction that Keys voluntarily spoke to the agents and he was “rational, articulate, cooperative, and polite.”
In a defense trial brief, Keys’ lawyers warn that if their client is convicted, the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act “becomes dangerously broad and would permit felony prosecutions for editing Microsoft Word documents without someone’s permission, even though a saved version of the document existed. And that is essentially what the government is prosecuting in this case. This is not what the damage provision of the CFAA was meant to address.”
If convicted, Keys would face up to 10 years in prison. But the practical fact is a sentence for the first-time offender would fall between three and five years, according to experts.
He pleaded not guilty in April 2013 and, at the same time, was fired by Reuters. Instead of the criminal charges, however, Keys has cited his coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing as a primary reason for his termination. He was criticized for tweeting information about the investigation of the attack as it came across a police scanner.
Keys attended American River College and while there in 2011 signed on as the first online news producer for Fox 40.
In 2012, Time magazine named Keys one of the top 140 people to follow on Twitter. That same year The Huffington Post tabbed him one of the 50 people to subscribe to for news on Facebook. He was dubbed the “wunderkind of new media” by The New York Times, an outsized, outspoken online presence, popular and at times volatile.
In the wake of the indictment, Keys emerged as a lightning rod in the dispute between Internet freedom advocates and federal prosecutors.
His defense team suspects that Keys’ high profile made him an inviting target for the U.S. Department of Justice.
A jury of 11 women and 1 man was seated late Monday. The panel heard the government’s opening statement by James Silver, deputy chief for litigation in the computer crime and intellectual property section of the Justice Department.
The trial will resume Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. with the defense’s opening statement by Jay Leiderman of Ventura, a lawyer for Keys.
Editor’s note: This story was changed at 3:40 p.m. Sept. 28.