It's fairly safe to say that Matthew Keys won some sympathy in the days after his indictment for hacking charges. But after staying relatively silent, the Reuters social media editor is starting to talk publicly about this case. This feels like a bad idea.
On Wednesday evening, Keys took to Facebook to make the case for his innocence. The 26-year-old denied the charges in an itemized fashion, adding scare quotes where appropriate. Having done that he wrote, "My attorneys have said much of the same over the past few days, but I feel it might mean more coming from me directly." It's the most substantive thing Keys has said since his indictment last Thursday, and national media organizations pounced on the update like kittens chasing yarn. The headlines may as well read, "Matthew Keys Is Innocent, Says Matthew Keys." But hey, there's nothing wrong with arguing for your innocence in the face of serious federal charges, right? Some might say that argument is best made by lawyers in a courtroom, but we'll get back to that.
The tricky thing is that Keys is saying a lot of other stuff, too. Most of his tweets and Facebook updates are only tangentially related to his court case. There are lots of "I'm fine" posts and normal banter between cyberfriends, and that's generally okay. Keys has also, for lack of a more relevant phrase, been doing a little bit of trolling.
That verb is mostly relevant since, in the days after the indictment, a series of reports emerged about Keys' somewhat shadowy past on the Internet. BuzzFeed's Ryan Broderick connected Keys to a number of old blogs and concluded that the he was an "infamous LiveJournal troll." Gawker's Adrien Chen added additional details to that narrative based in part on his interactions with Keys back in 2010, when Keys publicly infiltrated the upper tiers of Anonymous and the alleged hacking incident took place. To our knowledge, Keys hasn't responded to these trolling allegations, aside of trolling Gawker founder Nick Denton. He has responded to at least one news report from The New York Observer. Contesting a small detail about his current employment status, Keys sneers at the story's author about what she "bothered to read" before writing her post and added, "Don't let a little thing like accuracy stand in the way of a good story." That's hardly condemning and arguably irrelevant in terms of Keys' court case, but it's not a nice way to react.
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Recent history offers some tough lessons about chatty hackers facing federal charges. Just two days ago, a federal judge convicted Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer for violating the same law that Keys is accused of breaking. Pending appeal, Weev will now spend the next three or so years in jail and must pay a $75,000 fine for lifting 114,000 email addresses from an AT&T database. While some find the hacking charges somewhat dubious — Weev didn't necessarily "hack" into AT&T's server as much he did sneak in the back door — the punishment is very real. And believe it or not, the prosecution used what Weev had said on Reddit the night before the sentencing as reason to believe he would offend again. (Pro tip: Don't refer to what you're going to do "next time," when you're about to be sentenced for doing that thing.)
This is all to say that Matthew Keys is on thin ice. He seems to have won the support for a large number of people online who believe that U.S. hacker laws need updating, and that's good. For the alleged Anonymous assist, an elementary-level hack that basically amounts to cyber graffiti, Keys faces up to 25 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines. That's pretty crazy! However, federal prosecutors don't seem intimidated by the Internet's disapproval of their tactics. They just sent Weev to jail and effectively rubbed his face in his last minute attempt to empathize with peers on Reddit. There's not telling how closely they'll scrutinize the growing list of statements Keys has made across various platforms since his indictment. Keys does have lawyers, good ones, and it's probably best to let them do the talking at this point.
It's almost impossible to think about this situation without hearing the Miranda rights in your head. "You have the right to remain silent," we all know the words. "Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law…" Those words are deeply embedded in our cultural and political memory. Keys was apparently never arrested or detained, so it's unclear* if anyone ever read him his rights. Matthew Keys, these are your rights. So long as you understand what you're doing, carry on. But tread softly, because you tread on your dreams.
* - We asked him, but Keys didn't respond in time for this post.