Crime - Sacto 911

Journalist gets two years in prison for helping hacker group Anonymous

Assistant U. S. Attorney Matthew Segal, right, speaks at the senetencing for Matthew Keys on Thursday in Sacramento.
Assistant U. S. Attorney Matthew Segal, right, speaks at the senetencing for Matthew Keys on Thursday in Sacramento.

Matthew Keys, whose rapid rise as a social media news reporter began and ended in Sacramento, was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison on a jury’s verdict in October that he conspired with the hacking group Anonymous to break into the Los Angeles Times’ website and alter a news story.

At the conclusion of a hearing that stretched from late morning to midafternoon, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ordered Keys, 29, to surrender June 15 to begin serving the prison term.

The judge set a June 8 hearing on the amount of restitution Keys should be ordered to pay.

Defense attorney Jason Leiderman told reporters after the hearing that he and co-counsel Tor Ekeland will ask Mueller to stay the sentence pending an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Leiderman said the Anonymous member known to have done the actual hacking – identified publicly only as “Sharpie” – has never been charged.

Instead, Leiderman said, the hacker was contacted by local law enforcement officers in Scotland and “told not to do it again.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal argued hard for a longer sentence – initially five years in a sentencing memorandum filed March 10, and then 3  1/2 years after Mueller made clear during Wednesday’s hearing it would be less.

Segal told Mueller that Keys’ position has been, “Unless I committed the crime of the century, I shouldn’t go to prison.”

“That’s the voice of entitlement,” the prosecutor said.

Leiderman and Ekeland consistently sought only probation for their client, maintaining that the prosecution is “an overreach based on bad law,” referring to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, under which Keys was charged.

“The CFAA is a horse-and-buggy law in a jet-plane society,” Leiderman told Mueller. “It doesn’t take into account the Internet.”

The judge indicated her assessment that the defense was underplaying Keys’ actions and the prosecution was overplaying them.

By the time Keys was indicted by a federal grand jury in Sacramento in March 2013, he had become deputy social media editor of the British wire service Reuters and was regarded in his sphere as an aggressive reporter.

But, Segal argued, he allowed his zeal to punish Channel 40 (KTXL) for his termination in October 2010 to overwhelm his judgment to the point of breaking the law.

At first, according to the prosecutor, Keys used his skills and knowledge to steal the list of email addresses for the station's viewers who had signed up for an affinity program and, in many cases, had supplied their credit card numbers. Through a proxy server to hide his true identity, he sent harassing emails that wreaked havoc among viewers and members of the station’s staff, Segal alleged.

In a letter to Mueller, which Segal read into the record Wednesday, former Fox 40 news director Brandon Mercer wrote of Keys, “He’s not a journalist, he’s a terrorist.”

In December 2010, Keys hooked up with members of Anonymous in an Internet chat room and hatched a plot to up the ante by providing log-in credentials to The Tribune Co.’s computer system, according to prosecutors. At the time, the company owned the Los Angeles Times and the Fox affiliate in Sacramento, among other holdings.

Armed with the information from Keys, Sharpie accessed the Times’ website and changed the wording of a news story, prosecutors claim.

The story was restored to its original form in less than an hour but, according to Segal, the plot extended to other Tribune media properties and was thwarted only by Keys’ unsuccessful attempt to supply Sharpie with additional enabling data.

Unlike those who commit crimes for money, the judge should regard Keys as more culpable because his “rage was driven by narcissism,” Segal said. “His malicious purpose was to cause as much harm to as many people as possible. It was not a prank, it was a campaign of vengeance.”

Leiderman said Keys’ actions during that brief period in the fall of 2010, when he was an “immature 22,” is the only blemish in an otherwise law-abiding and productive life. In the nearly 5  1/2 years since, the attorney added, “his record is clean and he has grown up.”

Keys remains “a workaholic, and chases the news 24 hours a day,” Leiderman told Mueller. “To imprison his body is one thing; to imprison his passion for that pursuit is to imprison his soul.’

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189