A US lawyer specialising in computer hacking cases has spoken out against the upcoming trial of 29-year-old Deric Lostutter, an Anonymous-linked hacktivist who helped expose the rape of an underage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2013.
Lostutter, who recently pleaded not guilty to four hacking charges under the notorious Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), allegedly hacked into a fan website of the local football team that was storing email chats and photos relating to the incident.
The case in question revolved around sexual acts performed on an unconsenting 16-year-old by multiple members of the Steubenville high school football team.
In early 2013, two suspects were convicted; one was sentenced to one year in jail; the other received a two-year term. Both have since been released.
Lostutter, who faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted, was indicted this year by a federal grand jury in Lexington, Kentucky. The court filings said that he violated the CFAA after "knowingly and intentionally joined and voluntarily participated in a conspiracy" to access a computer without authorisation.
The potential sentence, according to his lawyer, Tor Ekeland, is in stark contrast to the sentences handed down to the culprits of the rape crime that his defendant helped expose.
"Why the DOJ is prosecuting people who participate in the exposure of rape culture in America is beyond me," Ekeland told Mic in an interview. "Why is somebody facing more jail time for the innocuous hack of a high school football team's website that caused no monetary damage, as opposed to two rapists and a producer of child porn?"
At the time, Lostutter was hacking under the title KYAnonymous. After teaming up with a second hacker called Noah McHugh, using the name JustBatCat, the pair launched Operation Roll Red Roll that eventually helped expose tweets, images and social media posts showing members of the high school football team joking about the rape.
The Anonymous hackers also published videos, pictures and emails that appeared to provide more information about the people involved in the incident.
Furthermore, accusations emerged that indicated the Ohio town – including the high school's football coach, Reno Saccoccia – had attempted to cover up the incident.
McHugh is facing his own legal troubles after hacking the website. In a separate plea agreement, he admitted to playing a role in the website infiltration and pleaded guilty to the hacking charge on 2 September this year. He now faces up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Lostutter, as the main suspect behind the football website hack, could be set for a much stricter sentence. He claims, as reported by Mic, the court is out to make an example of him in the week-long trial that will begin on 8 November.
"You get 16 years for forcibly entering your way into a computer, but you get one year for forcibly entering your way into a woman," Lostutter said. "I think that's the precedent the government is setting here."
Ekeland appears to agree with this assessment, arguing that media attention is the catalyst behind the DoJ's intent to prosecute. "All they're thinking about is their careers," Ekeland said. "Our tax dollars are going to pay for this? What does this accomplish? It accomplishes nothing."
During the 7 September plea hearing, Ekeland stressed on the judge his doubts about the validity of the prosecution. "This is not a situation where somebody hacked a hospital or took down a nuclear power plant. This was an act of political protest about the rape of a 16-year-old girl," Ekeland said, as reported by the Lexington Herald Leader.
"That the federal government is expending tax dollars on this, I think is something that people should be legitimately questioning," he continued. "I think it's an odd choice of prosecutorial discretion, whatever the merits."
Lostutter's case is the latest example of the CFAA being used to prosecute hackers. Many critics have slammed the 1986 law for being outdated and overly broad in how it can be interpreted by judges. Most famously, it was used in 2012 to bring charges against Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz after he was accused of illegally downloading academic papers. Under the weight of a potentially lengthy prison term, Swartz committed suicide in January 2013.
In the most recent case, former Reuters journalist Matthew Keys, who was found guilty of sharing confidential login credentials for a news organisation with Anonymous, was prosecuted under the act. In the lead up to his two-year sentence, Keys became an active participate in the movement calling to reform the act. "Today's computer crime laws are antiquated and draconian," Keys told IBTimes UK in an interview. "They criminalise often benign computer behaviour."