SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A social media editor who has worked for two of the nation's largest news-gathering organizations pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that he conspired with the hacking group Anonymous to deface the Los Angeles Times' website.
Matthew Keys, 26, made his first appearance in federal court since he was charged last month, but he made no comments.
Keys is charged with giving the hacking group Anonymous the login credentials to the computer system of The Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other media properties.
He was fired by a Sacramento television station owned by Tribune two months before the Times' website was hacked.
The charging documents say a hacker identified as "Sharpie" used information Keys supplied in an Internet chat room to access the Times' Web system and alter a headline on a December 2010 story. The headline was changed to read "Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337," an apparent reference to another hacking group.
Keys said in a Facebook posting last month that he did not provide the login information.
"He was a journalist in that chat room, absolutely. But, I mean, he didn't do the acts he's accused of doing," his attorney, Jay Leiderman, said before Tuesday's hearing.
Prosecutors say Keys encouraged Anonymous members to hack into the Tribune's website and he applauded their success.
Keys is charged with two counts that each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison — transmitting and attempting to transmit information with the intent of damaging a protected computer. He faces a third count of conspiring to transmit that information, which carries a maximum sentence of five years.
On Tuesday, however, federal prosecutors said Keys likely would serve far less than that if convicted, partly because he has no prior criminal history.
Prosecutor Matthew Segal predicted the sentence would be from 10 months to 27 months, with the possibility that he could split time between prison and house arrest.
Keys, who was casually dressed in a blue open-neck button-down shirt, blue slacks and running shoes, was released on his own recognizance pending a June 12 status conference, and prosecutors did not challenge his release without bond.
"The sentencing stakes in this case ... are not such that they would cause a person like this to flee," Segal said.
Keys' indictment has fed an ongoing debate over when an online prank becomes an Internet crime and whether the government is going too far in punishing the perpetrator.
The debate was sparked by the suicide in January of Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet activist who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment as he awaited trial on allegations that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles and helped post millions of court documents online.
Tribune employees spent 333 hours responding to the 2010 hacking that Keys is charged with orchestrating, costing the company of $17,650 in labor costs, according to an October 2012 search warrant affidavit filed by the FBI. The FBI searched Keys' three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment looking for computer equipment.
In the affidavit, FBI agent Gabriel Andrews said there was probable cause to believe that Keys broke into the Tribune computer system after he was fired in October 2010 by the Tribune-owned FOX affiliate KTXL-TV in Sacramento. He stole an email list of FOX 40's customers, then "offered to sell this list to members of Anonymous," according to the affidavit.
"Keys also used this list to send spurious emails to FOX 40's customers and to disrupt the business operations of FOX 40," the affidavit said.
Leiderman, Keys' attorney, denied the allegations.
The television station told the FBI that Keys also changed the passwords to the station's Twitter and Facebook accounts after he was fired. He deleted 6,000 followers from the station's Twitter account and posted news headlines from the station's competitors during the four days he had unauthorized control of the accounts, according to the affidavit.
Leiderman said that involved "a dispute over ownership" of personal accounts Keys had been using on behalf of the station.
Keys was not charged with any of the alleged incidents involving FOX 40. The station referred requests for comment to Tribune Corp. spokesman Gary Weitman, who declined comment.
On Monday, Keys said via his Twitter account that he had been fired by his most recent employer, the Reuters news agency.
Keys has been tireless in his use of social media, particularly Twitter. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Allison Claire advised him Tuesday that he had the right to remain silent, and he never said a word in court or while his attorney spoke with reporters outside the courtroom.
Leiderman would not identify two women, apparently family members, who accompanied Keys to court, nor say where his client is living aside from somewhere in Northern California. The attorney also declined to comment on Keys' firing by Reuters, saying that Newspaper Guild attorneys were filing an appeal.
Segal said prosecutors had previously offered Keys a plea deal, which Leiderman said Keys turned down. The defense attorney said he couldn't remember the terms, but believed it would have required his client to serve about 10 months in prison, in keeping with his calculation of what Keys could face under federal guidelines if he is convicted.
Leiderman said, however, that he fears that a judge could disregard those sentencing guidelines.
"You could see a judge after a trial wanting to send a message to everyone," Leiderman said. "When you look at it in that light, it could be a bit terrifying."