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FBI Infiltrates Hacktivist Groups, 5 Charged in Hacking Conspiracy

On Tuesday, the FBI announced the arrest and indictment of 5 members of the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous and related groups on charges of computer hacking conspiracy and other counts stemming from the groups’ online campaign of online security breaches, vandalism, and theft. Additionally, the August 2011 indictment and guilty plea of Hector Xavier Monsegur—a prominent hacker known as “Sabu” and leader of the Anonymous-affiliated group Lulzsec—was unsealed, revealing his cooperation with the federal government in its investigation, a revelation that has astonished many within the hacker community.

Anonymous came to prominence in 2010 and 2011 with a string of cyberattacks against government computer systems and websites across the globe as well as cyber security and entertainment industry firms. Among the U.S. corporate computer systems known to have been attacked by Anonymous, Lulzsec, and the other groups are Fox.com, Sony, MasterCard, Visa, and Paypal. The attacks on the credit card and payment processing firms were orchestrated in late 2010 and early 2011 by a sub-group of hackers known as Internet Feds and were purportedly untaken in retaliation for the companies’ refusal to process donations to Wikileaks, the whistleblower organization that has released millions of pages of sensitive and secret files stolen from governments and companies worldwide. The motivations behind other Anonymous cyberassaults are less clear, though following attacks on Sony, Fox, and other companies, which resulted in the dissemination of private information of hundreds of thousands of users, Lulzsec released a statement suggesting that their actions were at least partially a protest against the lax security measures taken to protect private user information by the companies. Last year, in an attack on the government consulting firm Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.), hackers stole the credit card information of 60,000 users and ultimately $700,000 in unlawful charges were made to the accounts.

The multiple conspiracy charges now being brought against the 6 teenage and 20-something hackers—2 from the United Kingdom, 2 from Ireland, and 1 from Chicago, and 1 from New York—each carry a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years in addition to substantial fines. Three of the defendants face a total of up to 20 years imprisonment on the conspiracy charges.  Additionally, individual hackers face separate charges of distributing illegally intercepted wire communications and substantive computer hacking charges. The alleged ringleader, who plead guilty last summer faces a possible sentence of over 124 years imprisonment, although some leniency is expected due to his cooperation with the FBI.

Federal conspiracy charges are often brought by the government in order to maximize the possible penalties against defendants. Under a conspiracy charge, a defendant may be held responsible for the collective actions of all members of the conspiracy, whether or not he had actual knowledge of the others’ actions. Once the government establishes that a conspiracy existed, even relatively minor participation that would alone result in a short sentence can easily be turned into sprawling criminal charges that threaten a lifetime in prison. Aside from enhancing sentences, conspiracy charges allow the government to pressure defendants to waive their constitutional right to a trial and plead guilty in exchange for the government dropping some of the charges or recommending modest sentence reductions. The Supreme Court has consistently held up such tactics though critics and academics condemn such behavior as unconstitutional government coercion.  When facing charges in an enormous conspiracy such as the one charged in this case, it is rare that a defendant—even an innocent one—will not plead guilty to avoid the prospect of decades or a lifetime in prison.

Our federal criminal attorneys have extensive experience representing defendants charged with in federal criminal conspiracies of all kinds, from drug and weapons trafficking to computer pornography, illegal gambling, and mortgage fraud. As described above, conspiracy charges are extremely serious and can threaten potentially enormous sentences. Our many successful outcomes for clients accused of federal criminal charges are a result of careful pretrial preparation, skilled negotiation with government prosecutors, and highly effective courtroom performance. If you have been charged in a federal conspiracy or are under investigation, contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible to ensure that your rights are protected.