(William M. Welch and Byron Acohido USA TODAY) A social-media editor for the Reuters news agency was charged Thursday with conspiring with the hacker group "Anonymous" to hack into and alter an online Tribune Company news story, the Justice Department said.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the case involved an attempt to change an online version of one of its stories.
Matthew Keys, 26, of Secaucus, N.J., was named in an indictment in the Eastern District of California. He was charged with one count each of transmitting information to damage a protected computer, attempted transmission and conspiracy, the Justice Department said.
Keys worked for a Sacramento television station, KTXL Fox40, as a Web producer until he was fired in October 2010, the department said. The station and Los Angeles Times are owned by the Tribune company.
Reuters said in a prepared statement that it was aware of the charges and is "committed to obeying the rules and regulations in every jurisdiction in which it operates.'' It noted that the indictment cites actions that occurred in 2010, before Keys joined Reuters in 2012, and said the agency would have no further comment
The indictment alleges that two months after leaving the TV station, Keys provided members of the hacker group Anonymous with log-in credentials to a Tribune Co. computer server.
The Justice Department said Keys identified himself as a former Tribune employee during an Internet forum chat and provided the Anonymous group with a login and password, then allegedly encouraged group members to disrupt the website.
The indictment alleges that at least one computer hacker used the credentials provided by Keys to log into the Tribune server and make changes to the web version of a Los Angeles Times story.
The Times displayed on its website a Dec. 14, 2010, story from its Washington bureau that appeared to have been altered. The story, involving congressional action on taxes, had the words "CHIPPY 1337" inserted in the headline and other changes.
If convicted, Keys faces up to 10 years in prison on two of the counts, five years on a third, and a fine of $250,000 for each count, the Justice Department said.
Keys allegedly began frequenting the Internet chat room where Anonymous members are known to congregate and discuss capers in late 2010. Gregg Housh, an Internet activist associated with Anonymous, says Keys was well known as himself -- a journalist participating in Anonymous' discussions, much like several other reporters.
"He was well known in the IRC channel and he had always done it from a journalistic standpoint," Housh says.
Normally, chat room discussions occur in real time, and hacks are carried out spontaneously to make an ideological point. Most often the participants operate with impunity.
But at the time Keys is alleged to have joined in, Hector Xavier Monsegur was a high-profile Anonymous leader, who would eventually become a leader of LulzSec, a splinter group of Anonymous. LulzSec engaged in hacks that embarrassed Sony, the Bank of America, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce among more than 50 others in 2011.
Monsegur used the nickname "Sabu" and "Sharpie." He was privvy to the discussion planning the newspaper hack, says Housh. Monsegur was arrested in June 2011 and became a government informant.
"He must have given the authorities everything he could think of to try to get less (prison) time," Housh says of Monsegur.