Modern field guide to security and privacy

One-time chronicler of Anonymous, Barrett Brown, sentenced to five years

The so-called unofficial spokesman of Anonymous was sentenced in Dallas on Thursday for linking to stolen documents. His supporters say he was punished for doing his job as a reporter writing about hackers.

Free Barrett Brown / Creative Commons
Barrett Brown pled guilty to charges stemming from Stratfor hack despite claiming he was journalist working on a story with no criminal role.

After he was arrested more than two and a half years ago, a journalist once known as the unofficial spokesman for Anonymous has been sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement with the hacker collective. 

Inside a Dallas federal district courtroom on Thursday, Barrett Brown pleaded guilty to three charges: transmitting threats, accessory to hacking charges, and interfering with the execution of a search warrant. Judge Samuel A. Lindsay also ordered that Mr. Brown pay $890,000 in restitution and serve two years parole. 

Brown gained notoriety for his self-appointed role as the mouthpiece for Anonymous and his extensive writings about the shadowy network of hacktivists known for using computer attacks in support of causes it deems worthy. He's written for The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and Vice among others.

After his arrest, his case turned into a cause célèbre for many journalists and digital rights activists who argued that Brown was being punished for merely doing his job as a reporter covering the hacker community.  

They say that Brown was essentially punished for simply posting a public link to hacked documents, and that the case may now criminalize aspects of modern journalism.  

With this ruling, the “government here undermined and threatened news organizations," said Hanni Fakhoury, a senior attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, especially if the case sets a legal precedent that could lead to charges against other journalists that link to stolen or leaked documents such as National Security Agency slides or e-mails from Sony executives. 

Other Brown supporters say that he is being punished for the nature of his work. Kevin Gallagher, director of Barrett Brown’s legal defense fund, went so far as to call Brown a "political prisoner." Brown’s prosecution “hinges upon the nature of his work – which exposed state secrecy, contractors connected to the government ... and the fact that he's now being persecuted by those same forces he was investigating or advocating transparency for.”

But according to Judge Lindsay, "Mr. Brown collaborated with and supported the hackers." The judge also dismissed theories that Brown's sentencing would have any broader impact on free speech and journalism. "What took place is not going to chill any 1st Amendment expression by Journalists" he is quoted as saying.

The judge is also quoted by those attending the sentencing as saying Brown was "more involved than what he wants the court to believe." 

At the time of his arrest in 2012, he was caught with electronic files stolen by Anonymous attacks on the cybersecurity firm Strategic Consulting better known as Stratfor, which provides analysis on political and security issues to the US Military and private companies. 

The criminal charges stem from Brown sharing a public link to the stolen Stratfor documents, which included credit card information, in his private IRC chat room. The government considered this "trafficking in stolen authentication features."

According to reports on Twitter from people who attended the sentencing, the prosecution argued that “you can traffic in something publicly available," and his linking could be considered as credit card trafficking.

The accessory to hacking charge involved the Stratfor hack. The government argued that Brown was a leader among the hackers that carried out the attack.

But technology journalist Quinn Norton testified at Brown’s hearing in December that he doesn't have the necessary knowhow or skill to execute such an attack. Even the chat logs of the hacktivists involved that were admitted as evidence by prosecutors show them mocking and deriding Brown. They didn't appear to be view him as a leader. In fact, they joked about setting him up. 

Brown pointed out in court today that “other journalists were also linking to [the same link] without being prosecuted.”

Prior to his sentencing, Brown lawyer Marlo Cadeddu said the nature of the charges reveals a lack of understanding on the part of the court. It might be “a generational gap,” said Ms. Cadeddu. She mentioned prosecutors “kept saying he published this link, but it was public before he linked it.”

Brown did apologize for "some" of his actions. But he also took the opportunity during his sentencing to speak out against some charges.

For instance, he called his YouTube videos where he threatened an FBI agent "idiotic." Brown told the court that "I made them in a manic state brought on by sudden withdrawal from Paxil and Suboxone, and while distraught over the threats to prosecute my mother, that’s still me in those YouTube clips talking nonsense about how the FBI would never take me alive.”

After the sentencing, Brown, who is known for his sardonicism, posted a  statement online that began with: "Good news! – The US government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex."


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