A hacker is claiming that his refusal to work with the FBI saw him being hit with far more charges than befitted his crime
A hacker is claiming that his refusal to work with the FBI saw him being hit with far more charges than befitted his crimesimonok, Free Images

A hacker has revealed that the US federal government brought a large number of charges against him because he refused to spy on a Mexican drug cartel for them.

Earlier in February 2015, Fidel Salinas, 28, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors from the Southern District of Texas and was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of $10,600 (£6,895).

Salinas consented to plead guilty to a misdemeanour count of computer fraud and abuse, after admitting to repeatedly scanning Hidalgo County's local government website for security vulnerabilities in early 2012.

However, prior to reaching this plea agreement, Salinas had been charged with 44 felony counts of computer fraud and cyberstalking – whereby each count carried a 10-year maximum prison sentence.

Almost all of these charges have now been dismissed, and the hacker, who was linked to Anonymous, has told Wired that the charges were brought against him because he refused to spy on Mexican drug cartels for the FBI.

A woman, whose sister is believed to have been killed by a Mexican drugs cartel, is comforted by a police office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Reuters)
Mexican drug cartels are become notoriously violent and brazen. A woman, whose sister is believed to have been killed by a drugs cartel, is comforted by police in Mexico.Reuters

Refusing to spy on drug cartels for the FBI

"They asked me to gather information on elected officials, cartel members, anyone I could get data from that would help them out. I told them no," Salinas said.

Salinas said that in May 2013 during a six-hour-long interrogation with the FBI, he was asked by two agents to use his hacking skills to help them gather information on Mexican drug cartels and local government officials that could be accepting bribes from drug lords.

"We think you can help us. You can help us stop some of this corruption and stop the cartels," Salinas says he was told by the FBI agents, who promised that they wouldn't ask him to inform on other members of Anonymous.

"Think of it like this, you have a superpower, and you should use your superpower to help us help people."

Unfortunately there was no lawyer present during this interrogation, so Salinas has no proof of his claims, and the FBI has flatly denied his version of events.

Piling on charges over 11 months

But four months after the interrogation, Salinas was charged with a single count of computer fraud and abuse.

Then six months after that, the prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that included 13 more counts, and then the month after that, another 30 counts were added, so that the final count was 44 charges.

On close examination, 18 counts charged Salinas with cyberstalking an unnamed victim, and the evidence of each of these charges was based on a single instance that he had submitted junk text into a contact form on the victim's website.

"I think with the first charge they thought I would cop a plea and help them, but I didn't," said Salinas.

"I do believe they were upping the charges to put pressure on me, out of spite for not helping them out."

Then, New York-based technology lawyer Tor Ekeland stepped in and took on Salina's case pro bono in 2014, and suddenly the charges fell from 44 down to 28, and then finally down to a single-misdemeanour plea deal.

Backing down when the charges were examined

"As soon as they got caught, they folded," Ekeland told Wired in November 2014.

"I feel sorry for all the people that don't have the support that Fidel had ... There are a ton of Fidel Salinas out there that aren't as lucky."

When contacted by Wired, the Department of Justice stressed that it was not uncommon for some charges to be dismissed when a plea bargain is struck, and that the prosecutors always focus on what "is in the best interest of justice for all parties involved".

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that getting a defendant to cooperate with the state by threatening him or her with a ton of charges is nothing new.

In fact, Hector "Sabu" Monsegur, a former Anonymous-hacker-turned-FBI-informant, who received only one year's probation for several high-profile cyberattacks, is one prime example.

However, usually the defendant is charged first, then offered the opportunity to reduce their punishment by giving information to the prosecutors, not the other way around, so if Salinas' tale is true, it underscores a disturbing development to justice in the US.