Interesting take on the sentencing of Barrett Brown below from Boing Boing. I know with all the right wing hatred about Barrett people want to just forget about him or claim he somehow deserved what he got just because some people were harassed on their websites by his griefer commune. However, I think the larger picture is that journalists need to be extremely careful about what they do when linking to content or, in this case, fruits of the poisoned tree. You see, when you link to data that has stolen credit card data in it, the DOJ can, but not often, will nail your ass to the wall over it. Much like passing around stolen material, say computers or what have you, those that pass it down the line could, in fact, be charged with receiving or even distributing said material.

The other issue that Brown had was this video below where he took things a tad too far with Federal agents. You see, Federal agents are by and large a pissy bunch of people, and when they get their panties in a bunch or, in this case, feel threatened, they can and will come after you for it. Barrett Brown had qualities that made people in government and the security industry nervous. He stood out like a sore thumb so to speak, and went after the security industry like there was no tomorrow. Add to that he announced his Project PM effort to the public, and then went about getting upset at Federal agents and posted a video that basically said he was going to ruin one agent’s life, and even his children for what they had done to him. Yeah, I would think that after all of that, it was really about the last straw for those who were in power. So they took him out and sent him to jail to “get the message” that you don’t screw around with them like that.


Of course, they also let him rot for two years in jail while sending that message. Then after the two years was up, they decided to let him rot some more, so another 2 years and some odd months were tacked on for good measure. This time he gets to visit and live those years out at a federal facility which is much better than where he spent the last two years. To the government, this will have the effect they wanted to send, which is to neutralize Brown, and also send the public a message that they can still neutralize anyone they deem fit who gets in their way. It wasn’t really about hyperlinking to stolen credit cards, it was, in fact, more about a number of things that government and the security industry didn’t like Brown doing. So with that, they took him and hung him out to dry, twisting in the wind that he created.

Of course, Brown will be back, and probably with a vengeance, but by that time will anyone really remember him? It all depends on the moment he is released whether or not he will attain relevance again. As with anything technology oriented, that technology moves fast, and when you are out of the game for a very long time, it tends to get ahead of you and pass you by so quick you end up having a hard time catching up when you get back to it. I am sure that a few good books will be produced, but it’s questionable whether or not the general public will care enough about this story to pick up and read about it. The one thing for sure is that government has proven once again that they hold all the cards, and if you cross them the results can be quite devastating.


Investigative journalist Barrett Brown was sentenced to an obscene 63 months in prison on Thursday, in part for sharing a hyperlink to a stolen document that he did not steal, and despite the fact that he was not guilty of a crime for linking to it.

Maybe journalists think this is an anomaly, and some will ignore his case entirely since Brown also pled guilty to other charges that led to part of his sentence too. But be warned: if the White House passes its dramatic expansion of US computer law, journalists will constantly be under similar threat and reporting on hacked documents could become a crime.

How is this possible, you ask? Well, first it’s important to understand the details of Brown’s case.

The curious case of Barrett Brown

Brown—a longtime journalist and activist has written for Vanity Fair, the Onion, and the Guardian—has been the subject of a controversial government witchhunt for more than two years now, stemming from his association with members of the hacker collective Anonymous and his own journalism website known as “Project PM,” which investigated shadowy intelligence contractors like Booz Allen (long before Edward Snowden made them a household name).

The FBI relentlessly pursued Brown for his relationship with source and hacker Jeremy Hammond, who last year pled guilty to hacking into Stratfor, the intelligence contractor whose emails were the subject of that notorious link. It’s important to note: the FBI never accused Brown of hacking. (For more on this, read Anonymous expert Biella Coleman in Slate: “Barrett Brown isn’t a hacker, but he’s being punished like one.”)

However, the FBI would eventually charge Brown with obstruction of justice and threatening an FBI agent that stemmed from his reaction to their hacking investigation, and also included a charge of “trafficking” in stolen information for merely sharing a hyperlink with his collaborators on Project PM.

The hyperlink, which Brown just copied from an Anonymous chatroom into a private Project PM chatroom, led to a trove of the Statfor documents, some which contained newsworthy information, and some which also contained private credentials. In other words, it’s the type of link journalists share between each other and on Twitter all the time.

After Brown’s lawyers wrote a blistering legal brief accusing the Justice Department of violating the First Amendment, the government swiftly drop the linking indictment, but Brown eventually had to plead guilty to three lesser charges (including threatening an FBI agent, which Brown freely admitted in court was wrong and stupid).

But you’d think that would be the end of trying to punish him for linking. But at the sentencing hearing on Thursday, the Justice Department again brought the hyperlink up, arguing that even though Brown was NOT charged for the linking to a public document, he should still be punished more for his other crimes because it is “relevant conduct.”

So instead of being sentenced for just his crimes, Brown—as explained in detail here by his defense attorney Marlo Cadeddu—got at least a year more in jail because the judge accepted the argument sharing a hyperlink—his First Amendment right, mind you—should factor into a longer sentence.


This should be worrying for all journalists, that reporting on controversial topics can be used against you when being sentenced for other, unrelated crimes. As longtime security journalist Quinn Norton wrote after Brown’s sentence, “I can’t look at the specific data another journalist has, and I can’t pass it along to a security expert, without feeling like there’s risk to the journalists I work with, the security experts, and myself.”

But it’s could get far worse than that soon.

The White House’s plan to make sharing certain links a crime

Part of the reason the Justice Department likely dropped the linking charge against Brown to begin with, besides the obvious press freedom concerns, was because he had no intent to defraud. In fact, he repeatedly stated he did not want to use or publish the credit card numbers found in the documents, only the newsworthy information.

But the White House recently issued a proposal for radically expanding the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act CFAA, which would make it much easier for journalists to be charged for linking to hacked documents containing passwords—regardless of intent.

The trouble comes in a section where the White House removes the phrase  “with the intent to defraud” from the section criminalizing “trafficking” in passwords. So instead of sharing passwords for the purpose of committing fraud, you know merely have to share them purposefully with the knowledge they may be used by others.

So stories derived from document dumps like the Sony hacks, where passwords are intermixed with a ton of other newsworthy documents (and where the passwords were was a newsworthy story in itself), become a lot riskier for news organizations to report. Merely sharing a link between reporter and editor may be a criminal act.

Or what about stories that are about passwords? At the end of every year, stories inevitably pop up about the “most common passwords,” which are quite popular with readers, but are also are generated through analyzing passwords that were stolen and then posted online.

These stories are often framed as amusing, but actually should be helpful to readers in explaining why they should be better protecting their security by not using the same, easily guessable password for various websites. Under the White House’s proposal, the journalists producing these stories might be committing a crime.

Right now, though, it’s only Brown that has to suffer the injustice of being sentenced to a longer jail sentence for committing journalism. Thankfully, as the witty writer that he is—read his jailhouse review of Henry Kissinger’s recent book, it’s hilarious—Brown’sresponse to his sentence was in much more good spirits than his supporters:

Good news! — The U.S. 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. For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment. — Wish me luck!”

Barrett Brown’s sentence is unjust, but it may become the norm for journalists – Boing Boing.

By Marcus Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman general and politician who played a key role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

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