Barrett Lancaster Brown, best known as the so-called former mouthpiece for the hacker collective Anonymous, is sitting in a jail cell in Texas. For the past eight months, Mansfield Law Enforcement Center has been home for the journalist and activist now known as Prisoner 45047177.
Three hots and a cot will continue to be his routine at least until September, when he is scheduled to stand trial on 17 charges, including allegations that he threatened an FBI agent and committed identity theft and credit card fraud.
The slightly built 31-year-old former heroin addict denies the charges. What he does admit is that he used his hacker connections to look under rocks and uncover what he considered evidence that the U.S. government was using private security companies to clip the wings of Internet activists and sympathetic journalists.
Brown: I Wasn't A Hacker
Brown's sometimes questionable behavior and affiliations make him a confusing and polarizing character. He claims he never hacked anything, and we'll probably never know with certainty exactly which details in his story stack up, or what involvement he had with Anonymous' core hackers.
There doesn't seem to be much evidence Brown was involved in any actual hacking, despite his connection to both Anonymous and his obsessive interest in federal security contractors. But his outspokenness, drug history and outlandish claims make him unsympathetic and hard to believe — an unlikely poster child for Internet freedom. And his unbalanced, over-the-top YouTube rants — more on those below — made him an easy target for the feds.
What we do know is that in early 2011, Anonymous targeted a security contractor called HBGary Federal and its CEO Aaron Barr after Barr publicly claimed he'd infiltrated the hacker collective. When Barr threatened to reveal the identities of Anonymous members, the group hacked straight into HBGary's servers, stealing 70,000 company emails.
Brown, through his affiliation with Anonymous, then posted a link to those hacked company documents on a public website called Project PM and wrote about his findings for the U.K. Guardian. Brown, who seems to have been conducting an obsessive investigation of both HBGary Federal and Stratfor (another security contractor hacked by Anonymous), claimed the material proved that the companies were hired by the government to monitor and shut down various online activist groups. In particular, he alleged that HBGary was working with high-level government agencies to feed fake information to WikiLeaks.
The aftermath of the HBGary episode led to Barr's unceremonious departure from the firm. Brown would later claim on YouTube that Barr's well-connected friends then mounted a federal vendetta against him.
In The Feds' Crosshairs
Brown, one of the few public figures available for authorities to target for the activities of Anonymous, is basically a fall guy for the hacker collective. He faces 100 years behind bars if found guilty on all counts. And right now he's stewing in a cell where he may be getting less than proper care. In a Pastebin message from last September, Brown claimed he did not receive appropriate medical attention for crushed ribs suffered during the FBI's raid of his home.
Between his connection to Anonymous and his obsession with digging up dirt on the national security state, Brown pinged up on the feds' radar pretty quickly. He was first indicted last year after allegedly threatening federal agents. He was arrested, then subsequently indicted a second time for allegedly linking to stolen documents from Stratfor that included credit card data.
The third indictment involves an obstruction charge of concealing evidence, wherein Brown allegedly hid two laptops when federal agents stormed his mother's home in a raid. The laptops were eventually found and confiscated. The alleged threats and credit-card charges led prosecutors to push for a life sentence.
In some ways, Brown's muckraking wasn't all that different from what many journalists have always done, updated to employ digital tools. Reporting based on leaked documents — which, of course, aren't usually authorized for release — is as old as investigative journalism itself.
But Brown pushed the boundaries, and his drug history and proximity to the hacker community made him more vulnerable than other rabble rousers such as columnist Glenn Greenwald. Brown wasn't a staffer at a major publication, and his own blistering public statements and threats, on both television and YouTube, gave the government all the motivation it needed to take him down.
Barrett Brown's Incendiary Videos
Major news organizations like the New York Times and The Guardian both describe Brown as a victim of persecution. And in many ways he is, although some of his alleged actions are criminal by definition, such as threatening the life of a federal agent.
Brown's legal troubles began when his mother's Dallas home was first raided in March of 2012. At that time, the feds confiscated his laptop, and by his account terrorized his mother and sent his life into a downward spiral.
After the raid, Brown took to the Web to tell his side of the story. On Sept. 11, 2012, Brown posted a trio of videos lashing out at perceived enemies:
At around the 12:00 mark of video number 2, Brown says that the FBI views him as a bad guy, and that he's going to prove in the court system just how bad of a guy he is. About a minute later he demands that the FBI return his laptop, notebook and Xbox.
In the third video, shot and released a day later, Brown brings up his heroin addiction and subsequent move to suboxone, a narcotic used to treat oppiate addiction. At around the 12:00 mark of this video, Brown warns that he is armed and has been trained to shoot, saying if any FBI agents come to his home, particlary one agent that really irked him for allegedly harassing his mother:
I will shoot them and kill them... I have no choice left but to defend my family, myself, my girlfriend, my reputation, my work, my activism, my ideas and the revelation that my friends are going to prison so we can have a chance to get out for other people. So they would matter. And frankly, you know, it was pretty obvious I was going to be dead before I was 40 or so, so I wouldn't mind going out with two FBI sidearms like a f***ing Egyptian pharaoh. Adios.
Hours later, while on a live feed on TinyChat, Brown's home was raided and he was arrested. The whole thing is captured in this almost surreal video:
Since his arrest, Brown's mother Karen has also been targeted by authorities. She pled guilty to obstructing the execution of a search warrant, and now faces up to a year in jail and a $100,00 fine. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled.
Brown has gotten some support from the Internet community, but nothing like the outpouring for the recently passed Aaron Swartz. Anonymous created a White House petition to stop his prosecution, but the reprieve didn't come close to getting the required 100,000 signatures by the April 20 deadline. Supporters have built several sites to educate the public about his plight, the timeline of his case and to help raise money for legal representation.
Hard Times For The Fall Guy
Brown's supporters have raised about $20,000 for legal fees, and Brown has a new team of lawyers replacing his previous public defendants. But the court had up until last week frozen Brown's access to those funds, which meant that Brown's new legal team of Ahmed Ghappour and Charles Swift were essentially working pro bono. But that all changed last Wednesday when the court allowed the transfer of funds to pay for the lawyers' travel expenses and fees.
It's still a long way to Brown's September trial, which could end up conflated in public perception with two other prominent hacker prosecutions. There's the case of Matthew Keys, the journalist facing a $750,000 fine and jail time for allegedly feeding passwords to Anonymous members who then defaced the Los Angeles Times' website. Andrew Auernheimer, the hacker also known as Weev, is also appealing his sentence of more than 41 months in prison for his role in a 2010 hack of AT&T.
All of these cases are related to the much-maligned Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) the outdated law that has led to a number of questionable prosecutions — often of activists like Aaron Swartz rather than actual computer criminals. By the time Brown's trial gets going, there could be government movement to reform the poorly constructed law.
Prosecuting Brown Won't Stop Hacking
The federal case against Brown, once you understand the details, doesn't pass the laugh test. It turns hyperlinking into a crime akin to breaking into secured computers and casts loose and admittedly unwise Internet soapboxing as criminal conspiracy against federal agents. And it turns one link into 11 separate charges of alleged identity theft.
"Barrett is facing decades in prison for cut-and-pasting a link," laments his lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Texas at Austin. Were it not for the hysteria over WikiLeaks and Anonymous attacks on government, financial and security-contractor sites, this case probably wouldn't exist.
Arresting hackers and fringe collaborators doesn't seem to be slowing the tide of cyberattacks. The last 12 months have seen some of the biggest cyber attacks on record. Denial of service attacks are up 12% since 2011, according to data from the security firm Arbor Networks. If the government really wants to stop hacking attacks, it needs to focus more on the actual perpetrators and less on show-trial prosecutions of peripheral figures like Brown.
Which isn't to say that Brown himself deserves to get off scot-free, just that his proposed punishment should fit his alleged crime. No matter what the circumstances, once you threaten the FBI, the feds are pretty much guaranteed to come down on you. And even Barrett Brown should have known that.
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