Matthew Keys, now freed from prison, is ready to get back to journalism

Matthew Keys, as seen in March 2018.Matthew Keys

It’s fairly common to hear that people who come out of prison are more self-reflective than when they went in.

The same is true of Matthew Keys—the journalist who was convicted in 2016 on three counts of conspiracy and criminal hacking. He’s now ready to better himself.

Earlier this month, Keys was released from the Satellite Prison Camp Atwater, in Atwater, California, after serving out his two-year sentence (he got out a few months early).

Speaking to Ars by phone last Thursday from a halfway house in California, Keys underscored three basic points about his case. The first, he said, is that it's all said and done. There will be no further appeal. Secondly, he maintains he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted. Finally, Keys is now ready to write a new chapter of his life: one where he can get back to doing meaningful, workaday journalism.

"I hope that I’m privileged enough to find work in journalism," he said. "I work hard, and I’m smart, but I do have an uphill battle going forward."

CFAA reform will have to wait

As Ars reported previously, Keys was accused and convicted of handing over a username and password for his former employer KTXL Fox 40's content management system (CMS) to members of Anonymous and instructing people there to "fuck some shit up." Ultimately, that December 2010 incident resulted in someone else using those credentials to alter a headline and sub-headline on a Los Angeles Times article. (Both Fox 40 and the Times are owned by the Tribune Media Company.) The changes lasted for 40 minutes before editors reversed them.

"Although this case has drawn attention because of Matthew Keys’ employment in the news media, this was simply a case about a disgruntled employee who used his technical skills to taunt and torment his former employer," said Benjamin Wagner, then US Attorney for the Eastern District of California, in an April 2016 statement.

"Although he did no lasting damage, Keys did interfere with the business of news organizations, and caused the Tribune Company to spend thousands of dollars protecting its servers. Those who use the Internet to carry out personal vendettas against former employers should know that there are consequences for such conduct."

After losing at the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeal in June 2017, Keys and his legal team ultimately decided not to pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court.

"At this stage, it’s over," he said last week during a call that lasted nearly 90 minutes. "And I am not anticipating any movement on my case from this point on. I would be surprised if there was something that came along."

While he had initially wanted to challenge the oft-maligned federal law under which he was convicted, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Keys said his case was ultimately not the right one to bring such a challenge.

"I felt very strongly given the current political climate that this was a bad time to bring this kind of CFAA case before the Supreme Court," he said. "There was a real chance that a negative outcome in this case would set a bad precedent that could bring significant harm to other individuals that are prosecuted under the CFAA, and other individuals and companies who have civil actions brought under the CFAA. That was something that I did not want to have happen."

Snow storm

So, who did set in motion the hack of the LA Times? The next best theory points to "Sam Snow," a character who has refused to come out of the shadows.

On the day of Keys' sentencing, April 13, 2016, Snow claimed to Ars in a lengthy letter that it was he, and not Keys, who perpetrated the hack. Snow, who has subsequently reached out to Ars and to Keys’ lawyer on multiple occasions, has expressed bafflement that no one has taken him seriously. However, Snow has yet to reveal any further information about himself, which makes such a claim difficult to believe.

Keys continues to refuse to further explain who Snow is and why he has consistently been protecting him by declining to disclose Snow’s identity, even now.

In the nine-page letter that Ars received on April 13, 2016, Snow explained he was more technically sophisticated than Keys and had taught Keys how to use IRC, the older chat medium that was favored by Anonymous. Snow essentially was trying to help Keys report on Anonymous—and Keys granted him anonymity in exchange. Snow, who had access to Keys' computer, found the CMS credentials on that computer and effectively used them as bait (without Keys' explicit knowledge or permission) to curry favor with some of the key members of Anonymous. The end result was that with Snow's guidance, Keys gained access to a secret channel known as #internetfeds.

Snow claims that he shared the CMS login (and wrote the “fuck shit up line”) without Keys’ explicit permission. Keys, who had agreed to keep Snow anonymous, was not happy when he found out what Snow had done and they stopped speaking after that.

The long and the short of it is that Keys continues to keep secret Snow's identity on the principle of protecting his source, even years after his brief involvement in Anonymous has become a footnote in an increasingly forgotten story. (Recall that Anonymous, if it even continues to meaningfully exist, is a shadow of its former self. Most of its primary actors are now behind bars, are cooperating with American investigators, or both.)

So if Snow were to allow Keys to reveal his identity, would he do it?

"It’s going to be something that is done with a legal deliberative process," Keys said.

"We’re going to have to get attorneys involved, we’re going to have to see whether they are going to be prosecuted. But who knows? Let’s say that clears me as far as the charges, but can the government go back and charge me with lying to federal investigators? That seems to be a favorite tactic right now. It’s much more complicated now. Given what I had gone through and what I’d seen, I’d be more inclined to suggest that [Snow] not come forward. I don’t wish this experience on anybody. Given how hard they went after me, I have to assume they would come at another person just as hard. That is really scary. I think [Snow] should be very scared. One of the reasons why I believe… they went after me is that they don't know who my source was."

In the end, Keys said that by choosing to grant Snow anonymity, it set in motion an unforeseen sequence of events.

"I should have taken a little bit more of a deliberative process than I initially gave it at that time, but that is the decision that I made," he said. "The consequences of that is on me. The consequences of talking to the FBI is on me. That’s a decision I made."

Slow jam the news

Prior to being incarcerated, Keys described himself as a "news junkie." His Twitter feed was active nearly constantly. Now, in the week that he has been on the outside, he has only tweeted a handful of times.

Keys said that previously, when people used to ask if he ever slept, he took it as a badge of honor. But now, after having been away from all of that for some time, he has learned to slow down.

"I came to terms with the fact that I suffer from mental illness," he said. "Being online and constantly throwing myself into work—I wasn’t getting help."

He began to recognize that spending time angrily engaging with people online was ultimately self-defeating.

"I'm eating better, I look better, I feel better," he said. "I still struggle with depression and anxiety."

Still, though, it’s hard to kick the habit of an old news hound.

"I started filing [Freedom of Information Act] requests yesterday using my own email account," he said on Thursday, adding that he also planned to file records requests about his own case.

"I would like to go back into journalism," he said. "I’ve had a very small number of people come up to me with leads and with prospective job opportunities. I’m currently tiptoeing around [Bureau of Prison] rules with respect to what I can and cannot do while I’m still here. So I am open to all offers; it’s a matter of when I can act on them. I think I could start acting on them now, but a lot of it is trial and error."

By June, Keys will be on supervised release and will be able to start working again. He plans to stay in California, his home state.

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