Four hackers in the US have pleaded guilty to misdemeanours after a judge questioned why prosecutors were attempting to press felony charges.
The hackers, alleged to be part of hacktivist collective Anonymous, were allowed to plead guilty over the telephone to the charge of conspiring to intentionally cause damage to a protected computer, which carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, Reuters noted.
The four men and nine others were originally brought up on felony charges last October, which could have ended with them getting locked up for up to 10 years.
But Virginia’s District Judge Liam O’Grady questioned why the group was on the hook for such harsh terms when a similar case brought in Californian court was settled with misdemeanour convictions and almost no jail time.
Prosecutors allege that all 13 suspects were part of “Operation: Payback is a bitch”, which was a campaign of denial-of-service attacks on government and company websites. The targets were organisations that are trying to shut down file-sharing sites to stop the illegal sharing of copyrighted files like the Motion Picture Association of America and the US Copyright Office.
The group used Anonymous’ Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) to facilitate the flooding of targeted web servers with junk traffic, but unfortunately for them, the tool doesn’t try to hide the internet network addresses of those that use it. Investigators were able to chase down the alleged perpetrators by tracking them through LOIC.
Another Operation Payback case was filed in California in 2011 in connection with an alleged PayPal DDoS offence with one defendant in common with the Virginia case, Dennis Owen Collins (alleged to go by the handle iowa, owen or anon5). Collins’ lawyer, John Kiyonaga, raised the issue of the disparate treatment in the Eastern Virginian court in May, asking the judge to force prosecutors in the two states to hand over communications between them in order to figure out why the charges were so different.
“I'm assuming there was some measure of communication between the two offices. Certainly the institutional memory pertaining to the investigation would seem to be – would have resided at least at the outset with California, they had three years to work the case,” Kiyonaga said, according to a court transcript.
“And I think Mr Collins is entitled to know exactly what reasons were proffered for the more severe treatment here.”
Judge O’Grady said at the time that he agreed there was a disparity argument in terms of sentencing that would need to be revisited in the case.
Collins and three other defendants, Anthony Tadros, Thomas Bell and Geoffrey Commander called their pleas in on the misdemeanour offence yesterday. Two other defendants have already pleaded guilty to the same charge and another is scheduled to change his plea in September. The six remaining defendants in the case are due to go on trial in October.
There has been growing criticism of how harshly cyber-criminals are treated by the US Justice Department, particularly since the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz last year. Swartz’s family and friends have been vocal about blaming his death on US prosecutors, whom they claim pushed Swartz too far. He was due to go to trial over allegedly stealing academic articles from JSTOR to publish them online for free, but was under indictment for claimed crimes that could have got him half a century behind bars and at least a million dollars in fines.
Critics of hacking-related laws argue that charges should be more lenient in cases like that of Swartz, where crimes are committed with no personal gain for the perpetrator. But the authorities point to the costs to businesses in damages and losses caused by attacks like DDoS on their systems.
In the Virginia case, the DoJ claimed that Operation Payback had caused $8.9m worth of damage. ®