A former Web producer for a Tribune-owned television station in Sacramento was indicted Thursday, accused of helping members of the hacking group Anonymous vandalize a Tribune site shortly after he was terminated from his job.
Matthew Keys, 26, now deputy social media editor for Reuters, was charged with three hacking-related counts and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted in the December 2010 incident. The hack appeared on a news story on the website of the Los Angeles Times, which is also owned by Tribune.
Prosecutors alleged that Keys conspired with Anonymous members to access the company's servers "for the purpose of learning how to alter and damage it."
According to federal authorities, Keys provided a username and password for Tribune servers to hackers on an online chat room after he left KTXL FOX 40 in late October of that year. With the information from Keys, prosecutors say, a hacker accessed a news story on The Times' website and changed a headline on a tax-cut related story to read: "Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337."
"[T]hat was such a buzz having my edit on the LA Times," the hacker using the screen name "sharpie" wrote to Keys, according to the indictment.
"Nice," Keys, using the screen name "AESCracked," allegedly replied. Keys said he was using a virtual private network "to cover my tracks," according to the indictment.
Keys did not respond to requests for comment. In a post on his Twitter account Thursday afternoon, he said he learned of the indictment through Twitter.
"I am fine," Keys wrote. "Tonight I'm going to take a break. Tomorrow, business as usual."
Prosecutors wrote in the indictment that Tribune spent more than $5,000 responding to the attack and restoring its systems. Authorities are seeking forfeiture of the tools Keys used in committing the alleged offenses, including his MacBook Pro.
Keys also faces a $250,000 fine for each count.
According to the indictment, Keys conspired with hackers via a chat room known as "internetfeds." Keys had written about gaining access to the chat room and communicating with hackers in a blog post for Reuters last year.
Keys said the chat room was a "top-secret" place where "elite hackers assembled."
"If there was a political or economic reason behind their mayhem, so much the better. If not, they did it for kicks," he wrote of the hackers' motivations for their attacks.
He wrote in the post of the hack on The Times' site, without acknowledging any personal involvement.
A spokesman for Reuters noted that Keys joined the company in 2012, more than a year after the alleged conduct. In an e-mailed statement, the spokesman declined further comment, citing ongoing investigations. A Times spokeswoman also declined comment.
Computer security experts said the breach was minor and may have drawn authorities' attention because of Anonymous' notoriety. "It's a trivial breach, it's not highly technical," said Philip Lieberman, president of L.A.-based security firm Lieberman Software.
Jay Leiderman, a Ventura-based criminal defense attorney who has represented hackers, including members of Anonymous, said Keys may have simply been "low-hanging fruit" that prosecutors could easily go after.
"It was a prank. It really could have been handled civilly through a lawsuit," he said.