The Matthew Keys Case Shows Just How Big a Bully the Feds Can Be

You can't help but feel bad for Matthew Keys. Here's a 26-year-old who suddenly finds himself facing up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines for a few keystrokes. Sound like anyone else who's been in the press lately?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

You can't help but feel bad for Matthew Keys. News emerged late Thursday afternoon that Keys was being indicted on hacking charges. Although the 26-year-old said he's "fine" and "tomorrow is business as usual" in a tweet a couple hours after the news broke, the latest report from Reuters, his employer, says "that his computer was being dismantled and that his security pass had been deactivated." Here's a media enthusiast who suddenly finds himself potentially unemployed and facing up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines for a few keystrokes. Sound like anyone else who's been in the press lately?

Of course it does. As almost everyone who's covered story about Keys, the deputy social media editor at Reuters, aspects of the hacking case is strikingly similar to the one that drove Aaron Swartz to commit suicide at 26. Swartz is the young activist who was hit with 13 felony charges after he was caught downloading reams of JSTOR articles from MIT's servers. Many said it was a victimless crime, especially since JSTOR didn't press charges against Swartz. Nevertheless, Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and over $1 million in fines. Swartz certainly had an axe to grind with the walled garden that is JSTOR and intended to make a statement with his hack, but he didn't set out to hurt anyone. Same goes for Keys who was terminated from the Tribune Company before he allegedly helped hackers from Anonymous break into the Los Angeles Times website and deface a single article. It was fixed within 30 minutes.

Hours after news broke of Keys' indictment, folks were saying the same thing about his alleged crime. As one Gizmodo commenter points out, Keys would've been better off putting his old Tribune boss in the hospital. Indeed, the maximum penalty for aggravated assault is 25 years in prison, based on the state. In New York, the fine cannot exceed $5,000. So should the criminal justice system treat computer nerds like violent criminals? Is it equally as harmful to society when a  hacker replaces a headline on a news site with a weird joke — that's basically all Anonymous did with Keys' help — as it is to beat someone with a crowbar? Most reasonable people probably wouldn't think so, but it seems like federal prosecutors are not reasonable people, when it comes to computer crimes.

There is a method to this madness, at least from the Department of Justice's point of view. The government is really scared of hackers and cyber attacks and all that stuff. The country's top intelligence chiefs could not have made that fact more clear this week, when they ranked cyber attacks above terrorism on the list of threats to the United States. President Obama and the Pentagon have also accordingly released fear-mongering statements about how hackers could break into our infrastructure network and wreak havoc. In a hypothetical scenario that the president described last year, a cyber attack could create a doomsday scenario where "trains had derailed, including one carrying industrial chemicals that exploded into a toxic cloud." All because of hackers!

Hackers can indeed do some scary things. But it feels like federal prosecutors are equating seemingly small infractions like defacing a website with very serious scenarios like derailing trains and exploding toxic chemicals. Even before Swartz committed suicide, his supporters complained about how he was being bullied by federal prosecutors who were looking for an opportunity to spear a big, recognizable fish in the hacker community. Mind you, even the term "hacker" puts a negative spin on Swartz's motives which were, by all counts, well intentioned. Keys seems like he was being a bit more malicious, especially given the fact that was let go from the company he helped hack. (It was probably a bad idea to tell Anonymous hackers to "go fuck some shit up" after giving them login credentials for the Tribune Company.) But again, nobody got hurt. It's actually pretty likely that few people even noticed the hack.

Matthew Keys is another one of those big fish, though. As a well known character in the social media community and a prominent staffer at a major media company, Keys would attract attention if indicted. And he has! There's nothing better to attract journalists' attention than to throw a journalist to the dogs. However, despite continued scrutiny over Aaron Swartz's prosecutors and their handling of that case, the Department of Justice appears eager to bully another one of the youngs. However, it's worth pointing out that the Justice Department is doing the bullying, but it did not write the hacking laws that are laying down intense penalties on seemingly small cyber crimes. Congress did. And it's up to Congress to change them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.