UPDATE — One of Matthew Keys’ lawyers told The Huffington Post on Friday that his client was working as an “undercover” journalist when he engaged members of Anonymous in an IRC channel offering login credentials for Tribune Co. servers.
Keys, 26, of Secaucas, N.J., was suspended with pay from Reuters news service on Thursday after the social media editor was charged with helping hackers break into the Tribune Co.’s network shortly after he was fired from a Sacramento television station in Fall 2010.
“This is sort of an undercover-type, investigative journalism thing, and I know undercover — I’m using that term loosely,” attorney Jay Leiderman told The Huffington Post. “This is a guy who went where he needed to go to get the story. He went into the sort of dark corners of the Internet. He’s being prosecuted for that, for going to get the story.”
A U.S. Eastern District grand jury in Sacramento handed down a three-count indictment against Keys for conspiracy to transmit information to damage a protected computer and transmitting or attempting to transmit that information. The combined counts carry a potential penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment and $750,000 in fines.
The government alleges between Dec. 10 and Dec. 15, 2010, Keys, using the moniker “AESCracked” in the IRC channel #internetfeds, gave out confidential login credentials he’d obtained while working at the Tribune-owned KTXL in Sacramento. He had been fired as a Web producer for the Fox affiliate a couple of months prior to engaging hackers in an chat room and encouraging them to “go f–k some s–t up.”
A legal document includes a transcript of one online conversation Keys conducted with someone known as “sharpie,” who is believed to be Hector Xavier “Sabu” Monsegur of New York, one of the founders of LulzSec who became an FBI informant after his arrest last year. His cooperation led to five arrests in March 2012.
In the online exchange, sharpie talks of hacking into the Los Angeles Times site to alter an article titled “Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337″ and written by CHIPPYS NO1 FAN.
Sharpie mentions he used ngarcia to briefly access the Tribune system before he was shut out a half hour later. “I can grant you access again,” AESCracked says. “That would be great,” sharpie responds. AESCracked then tells the hacker to stand by, he needs “to VPN to cover my tracks” only to discover he’s been “locked out for good.”
The chat occurred a couple of months after Keys left the Sacramento television station in October 2010. Keys joined Reuters as a deputy social media editor in January 2012.
On Thursday he tweeted out to his 23,770 followers: “I am fine. I found out the same way most of you did: From Twitter. Tonight I’m going to take a break. Tomorrow, business as usual.”
He is scheduled to appear April 12 in a federal court in Sacramento.