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According to a popular industry report by Verizon, hacktivism is a growing problem. In 2011, 58 percent of all data theft was tied to such groups. The 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report stated “the specter of ‘hacktivism’” is “doubly concerning for many organizations and executives” because these groups don’t follow “the logical lines of who has money and/or valuable information. Enemies are even scarier when you can’t predict their behavior.”
Defense attorney Jay Leiderman, based in Los Angeles, says the government has to take a more measured approach when it prosecutes online protest. “You can’t stop it altogether,” he said. Despite the FBI crackdown on Anonymous, for example, the loose collective continues to protest online and recently brought national attention to a rape case in Maryville, Mo.
Leiderman represents several hacktivists pro bono, and he compares them to more traditional protesters. Say 10,000 people rally in front of city hall or a company’s headquarters. “If cops have to drag them out,” he said, “they get ringed up for trespassing. A $50 fine maybe, or the case gets dismissed.”
If those 10,000 jammed the computer network of a city or company, even if they didn’t break into the server, they’d face up to 15 years in federal prison.
Leiderman said, “The contrast is stark.”
One of his clients skipped bail and fled to Canada after being indicted for attacking Santa Cruz in retaliation for a law barring homeless people from sleeping in public.
According to the indictment, Christopher Doyon, aka Commander X, allegedly led a DDoS attack that slowed down networks for 18 minutes during a weekday lunch hour and caused the city $6,300 in damage.
Leiderman says his client was stunned to find himself at the center of a felony case. “He thought he was a do-gooder.”
Sadly, Leiderman says, the protester turned himself into an international fugitive when his case was winnable. They just had to prove the total harm was about $1,300 less than charged. “It wouldn’t have been hard.”
When the PayPal case returns to court, one defendant may be able to ruin a plea deal for all the others. Defense attorneys said a plea deal may be in the offing but that all of the PayPal 14 have to take it.
But Dennis Collins, who is represented by Leeming, was recently indicted in Virginia for his 2010 hacking activity because it also harmed institutions in that jurisdiction, like the Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. Copyright Office. He may fear that the California plea would harm his case in Virginia.
Leeming, who would not allow his client to be interviewed, said, “This one is going to be tough.”
This article has been updated to correct an error. Attorney Jay Leiderman represented Christopher Doyon, not Josh Covelli, in the Santa Cruz hacking case.