Share to Facebook

Share to Twitter

Share to Linkedin

A supporter outside the New York courthouse where Hammond was sentenced.

One of the most active hackers in the collective known as Anonymous and the source of WikiLeaks' largest ever leak of secret documents was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison--the most severe penalty so far of any of the activist hackers who rampaged across the Internet in the chaotic summer of 2011, and the maximum sentence he could have received under his plea bargain agreement.

Hammond's ten year sentence will be followed by three years of supervised release during which time his computer with be monitored with surveillance software, and he'll be forbidden from encrypting any data or using tools that would hide his identity. Hammond may still be required to pay restitution for the financial damage from his attacks, but the size of that restitution hasn't yet been determined.

In her statement to Hammond, judge Loretta Preska rejected arguments that the political motivations for Hammond's hacking crimes against the private intelligence firm Stratfor, police organizations and military contractors should lessen his prison time. "These are not the actions of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela...or even Daniel Ellsberg," Preska said. "There's nothing high minded or public-spirited about causing mayhem."

Hammond pleaded guilty nearly six months ago to one count of computer fraud and abuse in the hack of private intelligence firm Stratfor, whose 5 million stolen emails Hammond helped to deliver to WikiLeaks, which has released thousands of them over the last two years. He accepted that plea bargain agreement in return for assurances that he would be sentenced to no more than 10 years in prison rather than the maximum 30 year sentence if the case had gone to trial, and that he wouldn't have to testify against any of his fellow hackers. "I did this because I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors," he wrote in a statement at the time of the guilty plea last May. "I did what I believe is right.”

In his statement to the court before his sentence was delivered Friday, Hammond admitted that he had hacked into "dozens" of law enforcement, military, and information security firms, but had done so with altruistic intentions, and had never even used credit card data he had stolen from those targets. "I felt an obligation to confront and expose injustice," Hammond said, noting that he was particularly inspired by the leak of military data to WikiLeaksa by Army private Chelsea Manning, known at the time of her leaks as Bradley Manning, and he apologized for the private data of individuals exposed in his hacks. "Yes, I broke the law, but I believe that sometimes laws must be broken to make room for change."

"Stay strong and keep struggling," Hammond concluded his statement.

Hammond, along with other members of Anonymous, was caught in an FBI sting operation that made use of the informant Hector Xavier Monsegur, a New York-based Anonymous hacker and leader of its splinter group known as LulzSec. Monsegur was so closely involved in the Stratfor hack that he even arranged to have the stolen emails stored for a time on FBI servers, unbeknownst to Hammond.

In his statement to the court, Hammond described how he was introduced to Stratfor as a target by Monsegur, and later given other targets including foreign government websites to hack, naming Brazil, Turkey and Iran among those on the list before the judge cut him off and said that those names had been "redacted." The data stolen from those websites, Hammond said, ended up with the FBI. "I think the government's use of this data needs to be investigated," he said.

Preska's response, however, rejected the notion that Hammond was set up or used by Monsegur, placing the responsibility for the hacks squarely on Hammond himself. She quoted transcripts of his conversations in Anonymous chatrooms where he called for "maximum mayhem," and described the goal of the Stratfor hack as "destroying the target, hoping for bankruptcy, collapse." Preska also cited the case of a retired Arizona policeman who along with his wife received hundreds of threatening phone calls after a website attack and data dump in which Hammond participated revealed their home phone number.

Hammond's ten year sentence is far longer than those of other Anonymous hackers who participated in the same string of attacks and all received less than three-year sentences in trials in the United Kingdom.

But Preska noted that unlike those other hackers, Hammond had a prior record of digital offenses, and had made similar arguments about the civil-disobedience nature of his actions in his 2006 sentencing for hacking a pro-war website and stealing 5,000 of its credit card numbers. "At 19, he said he had altruistic motives, and at 28 he says he had altruistic motives," she said. "The most significant fact in Hammond's history is his unrepentant recidivism."

Follow me on Twitter, email me, anonymously send me sensitive documents or tips, and check out the new paperback edition of my book, This Machine Kills Secrets: Julian Assange, the Cypherpunks, and Their Fight to Empower Whistleblowers, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice.