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In Swartz protest, Anon hacks U.S. site, threatens leaks

Saying "a line was crossed" with the treatment of tech activist Aaron Swartz, the group hacks a government site related to the justice system and distributes encrypted files it says it will decrypt unless demands are met.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
4 min read
This is what the United States Sentencing Commission's hacked home page looked like. Screenshot of cached page by Edward Moyer/CNET

In response to the death of tech activist Aaron Swartz, hacktivist collective Anonymous hacked a U.S. government Web site related to the justice system and posted a screed saying it would begin leaking a cache of government documents if the justice system is not reformed.

The group hacked the Web site for the United States Sentencing Commission late Friday, posting a message about what it's calling "Operation Last Resort," along with a set of downloadable encrypted files it said contain sensitive information. The sentencing commission is the caretaker of the guidelines for sentencing in U.S. federal courts.

"Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed," the group's statement reads. "Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win -- a twisted and distorted perversion of justice -- a game where the only winning move was not to play."

The recent suicide of Swartz, a proponent of freely accessible information, has been blamed by some on what they say were outrageously aggressive efforts on the part of the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts to punish Swartz for his alleged theft of millions of articles from a database of academic journals. The 26-year-old Swartz, who struggled with bouts of depression, had been charged with 13 felonies and threatened with decades in prison and fines exceeding $1 million. U.S. Attorney Carmin Ortiz says Swartz's lawyers were also offered a plea bargain in which he'd plead guilty and serve perhaps six months.

Anonymous encouraged its followers to download the files on the hacked site, a set of nine downloads named after the U.S. Supreme Court's nine justices and collectively referred to by the hacking collective as a "warhead."

"Warhead-US-DOJ-LEA-2013.AEE256 is primed and armed. It has been quietly distributed to numerous mirrors over the last few days and is available for download from this website now. We encourage all Anonymous to syndicate this file as widely as possible."

The group wouldn't specify what, exactly, is in the files, saying only that "the contents are various and we won't ruin the speculation by revealing them. Suffice it to say, everyone has secrets, and some things are not meant to be public. At a regular interval commencing today, we will choose one media outlet and supply them with heavily redacted partial contents of the file."

The contents of the encrypted files can apparently be accessed only with a decryption key, and Anonymous said it didn't necessarily want to provide that key to its followers -- it mentioned "collateral damage" as a result of any leaks and said: "It is our hope that this warhead need never be detonated." But the group said the U.S. government must begin acting on reforms to the justice system suggested by the system's critics, and in spelling out its demands more specifically, it mentioned plea bargaining and suggested the overhaul of legislation such as the mid-1980s antihacking law titled the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

...in order for there to be a peaceful resolution to this crisis, certain things need to happen. There must be reform of outdated and poorly-envisioned legislation, written to be so broadly applied as to make a felony crime out of violation of terms of service, creating in effect vast swathes of crimes, and allowing for selective punishment. There must be reform of mandatory minimum sentencing. There must be a return to proportionality of punishment with respect to actual harm caused, and consideration of motive and mens rea [criminal intent]. The inalienable right to a presumption of innocence and the recourse to trial and possibility of exoneration must be returned to its sacred status, and not gambled away by pre-trial bargaining in the face of overwhelming sentences, unaffordable justice, and disfavourable odds. Laws must be upheld unselectively, and not used as a weapon of government to make examples of those it deems threatening to its power.

The group said it had acquired the files by compromising various government Web sites and installing "leakware," which it has since removed to cover its tracks.

Here's the video Anon posted on the commission's site. A Google cache of the hacked home page, which includes the text version of the screed, can be seen here.