A federal judge just sentenced journalist Barrett Brown to 63 months in prison and ordered him to pay nearly $890,000 in restitution for charges related to the 2011 hack of Stratfor Global Intelligence. Brown's supporters maintain that the young writer and activist was "merely linking to hacked material." Either way, he'll spend about five years behind bars. That sucks.
You probably know Brown as the unofficial spokesperson of Anonymous, a title he's shrugged off again and again. You probably don't know Brown as a hacker. After all, he's not the one who actually hacked into Stratfor. A little over a year ago, another federal judge sentenced Anonymous member Jeremy Hammond to 10 years in prison for that offense. Hammond is the one who's said that Brown simply linked to the hacked data in a December column for The Guardian.
Clarification: While Brown faced a number of charges, he was not convicted simply for sharing a link. In fact, the government's case against Brown treated the link sharing more aggressively until last spring, when the Department of Justice dropped many of the charges related to his sharing a link to the hacked material. Brown was left with a charge for accessory after the fact for helping a Stratfor hacker evade authorities and one for obstructing a search, as well as charges in a separate case for threatening a federal officer.
While the charges Brown faced evolved over the course of his lengthy trial, the prosecution ultimately removed the charge related to linking to hacked material. Meanwhile, a massive campaign to free the 33-year-old ensued. Brown has already served 31 months in prison, though activists maintain that a judge has set a "dangerous precedent" by slapping Brown with an aggressive sentence and a massive fine. Actually, Brown only has to pay $225 in actual fines. The remaining $890,250 will go directly to Stratfor and its clients as, ummm, pay back.
Want to hear something even more insane? Originally, Brown faced 105 years in prison for "linking to hacked material" and his various other offenses. Now, nobody is really saying that Brown didn't do anything wrong. But the government's increasingly aggressive posture against hackers—or rather, anybody that it decides is a hacker—is pretty scary.
The United States government's definition of hacking is pretty broad, and the punishments are pretty severe, as the world learned after Aaron Swartz's suicide. Just recently, however, President Obama put forth a set of cybersecurity proposals that would actually broaden the government's definition of hacking and increase the penalties, which would make matters worse.