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Indicted College Student Speaks Up About Her Case, Anonymous

Def Con panel raises questions about penalties in online civil disobedience -- amid an Anonymous at a 'crossroads'

DEF CON -- Las Vegas, NV -- A college student arrested last year for alleged involvement in distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks waged by Anonymous appeared publicly here Saturday on a panel discussing the hacktivist collective and online civil liberties.

Mercedes Haefer, an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who was indicted in July 2011 with 13 others for alleged conspiracy to commit DDoS attacks against PayPal's website, spoke out briefly about her case in the panel session entitled "Anonymous and the Online Fight for Justice."

"I am charged with conspiracy to DDoS," Haefer said during the panel discussion, noting that she found the charges "amusing." She would not comment on the specific circumstances that led to her arrest.

Anonymous talk at Def Con focused more on online civil liberties and activism, and came amid the backdrop of a screening of "We Are Legion" documentary held at the famed hacker conference. It was a far cry from last year's Def Con, where some members donned their signature Guy Fawkes masks, while others shouted down speakers during a question-and-answer session on a panel about building a "better" Anonymous.

Legal experts on Saturday's panel pointed to a disparity in sentencing for physical activism versus hacktivism. Marcia Hoffman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the penalty for online civil disobedience is severe. "I'm not talking spending the night in jail. Federal hacking law [prescribes] up to 10 years in prison: That's an incredibly harsh penalty," Hoffman says. "It's disconcerting that young people flexing their political muscle get 10 years in prison for [a] first-time offense."

Whether DDoS should be considered a legitimate form of protest was also debated. "Under certain circumstances, DDoS is protected political speech and should be afforded First Amendment rights," said criminal defense attorney Jay Leiderman, who is representing Christopher Doyon, an alleged member of Anonymous who goes by the handle "Commander X."

Leiderman said an interview today that Commander X's case and the PayPal case are classic examples of how some DDoS attacks should be treated as free speech. In the former, Commander X and others camped out for months in front of the Santa Cruz, Calif., courthouse protesting a crackdown on homeless people sleeping in the streets. "In the wake of more arrests, he and a small number of people allegedly DDoS'ed the County of Santa Cruz, slowing its server for 18 minutes," he says. "That use of DDoS is a classic form of political speech, where the government is ignoring you and [you] get their attention in a nonharmful and noninvasive way with something to let them know you are out there."

Josh Corman, who has been researching Anonymous and, along with Brian Martin writing a series on "Building A Better Anonymous," says the DDoS-as-free-speech argument made by the panel was interesting. Corman says he sees the disparity in a $250 fine for physical civil disobedience and a 10-year prison sentence for the digital equivalent.

"I can see a reasonable argument that this is a legitimate form of free speech ... I can see the disparity in the law there. Maybe they have a case there, but I'll let people smarter than me decide," Corman says. "[But] then I realize what a massive distraction that [argument] was."

The free speech DDoS argument distracts from the more malicious activity some members of Anonymous have conducted, he says. "And all of that drowns out the potentially noble" activity, he says. The bottom line is that DDoS doesn't really accomplish what the hacktivists want it to, anyway, he says.

"It doesn't have any lasting damage at all. It's a tool of fear" and is noisy, but hasn't effected the type of change in the targeted organizations that the hacktivists had intended, Corman says. Sony, for example, suffered "orders of magnitude more" in financial losses from the massive earthquake in Japan than from the more than 21 DDoS attacks waged against it, he says.

[ The movement started as an Internet meme and grew into a complex and chaotic community. Security experts argue that the Anonymous brand is now in danger of imploding. See Anonymous Must Evolve Or Break Down, Say Researchers. ]

Meanwhile, Haefer offered a little insight into how Anonymous operates: In response to a question about how an Anonymous plan to out Mexican government officials with ties to drug cartels didn't materialize, she said sometimes the intentions are there, but action may not be "feasible at that time."

"A lot of times where people start up an op with the intention of trying to do something, and someone will jump the gun and say, 'We're going to [f'ing] do it,' and sometimes it's not always possible with the people we have around and their lives" and other commitments, she said.

At A Crossroads
Corman says a small group of Anonymous members should define what free speech online means, and a find a better way to protest than DDoS attacks, he says. "I can envision truly noble online activism as transformative as a civil rights movement," he says.

Corman and others at an earlier panel at Def Con urged the security community to be aware and speak out about privacy and freedom concerns at the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) meeting. Experts say the meeting could result in the potential restructuring and governance of the Internet that could ultimately hamper user access and freedoms.

The security community could be doing more to carry the torch here as a more formal means for Internet activism, he says. "The original Def Con crowd could be a force of organized chaos that keeps the peace actively or passively," Corman says.

And Anonymous, meantime, is at a crossroads, according to Corman. "Several [of them] are ready to engage on what a better Anonymous might look like," he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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