A Chicago “hacktivist” labeled by federal prosecutors as one of the world’s most dangerous cyberterrorists faces up to 10 years in prison when he’s sentenced in a New York courtroom today.
When federal agents kicked in the door of his South Side home in March 2012, Jeremy Hammond was already a cause celebre among anarchists and cyberterrorists for his sophisticated infiltration of government and corporate websites.
Facing sentencing for his politically motivated hacking spree, Hammond has a growing number of more mainstream supporters after recent revelations by Edward Snowden have seemingly given credence to Hammond’s belief that government and powerful corporations that operate in secrecy need to be checked and exposed.
Hammond, 28, pleaded guilty in May to hacking into more than half a dozen secure sites, revealing the personal and financial information of law enforcement officers, private intelligence agencies and military contractors in order to create what he called “maximum mayhem,” court records show. Prosecutors want the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison imposed.
To bolster defense arguments that Hammond should be sentenced only to time served, his lawyers submitted an extraordinary number of letters of support: More than 250 from friends and family as well as controversial activists, including Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistle-blower who four decades ago exposed the government’s secret escalation of the Vietnam War.
Hammond’s mother, Rose Collins, planned to travel from her home near Austin, Texas, to join what is expected to be an overflow crowd for the sentencing in federal court in Manhattan. The political polar opposite of her son, Collins said the two have had a strained relationship. But although she doesn’t agree with his methods, she’s come to realize that “people like Jeremy are necessary.”
“Look at everything that has come out,” Collins, a convenience store manager and tea party supporter, said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “We are all being watched. … Do we want to go through our lives in a fog?”
Collins said she is hopeful that U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska will “see the good in Jeremy” and show mercy.
“I want him out of there. I want him to see the sky,” Collins said. “I think he could change the world if he set his mind to it.”
Reveled in the chaos
Seven years ago, Hammond stood in a federal courtroom in Chicago facing sentencing for cyberattacking a conservative political activist group, crashing its website and stealing sensitive credit card information.
His lawyer at the time described Hammond as a boy with a bazooka, a genius who just needed the maturity to harness his extraordinary computer skills to use them for good. Citing the folly of youth, U.S. District Judge James Zagel cut Hammond a break and sentenced him to two years in prison
But prosecutors say Hammond had no intention of changing his ways.
After serving his time at a federal prison camp in North Carolina, Hammond returned to Chicago, where he hooked up with members of Anonymous, a decentralized, international group of hackers that had gained notoriety for stealing information from selected targets — usually for political reasons — then promoting the heist in “press releases” and dumping sensitive information on the Internet, prosecutors said.
In June 2011, just weeks after completing parole, Hammond was on the Internet chatting with “Sabu,” a New York-based hacker affiliated with the militant Anonymous offshoot known as LulzSec. Hammond told Sabu that criminal hackers, known as “black hats,” needed to unite against police and the government, adding that he had a “three-punch knockout plan” he was about to put into effect, court records show.
Over the next few weeks, members of LulzSec released a trove of documents that Hammond had stolen from Arizona Department of Public Safety servers, including the names, email accounts, passwords, home addresses and cellphone numbers of numerous Arizona police officers and their spouses.
In his correspondence with other LulzSec members, Hammond seemed to revel in the chaos that would ensue after each data dump.
As damaging as the Arizona police hack was, the far bigger splash came a few months later when Hammond led a cyberattack on Stratfor, a Texas private intelligence firm that contracts with the U.S. government and high-profile corporate clients around the world. In December 2011, Hammond told a co-conspirator in a web chat that he’d gained complete access to Stratfor’s computer networks, something no other member of LulzSec had been able to accomplish.
“We in business baby,” Hammond texted, according to court records. “Time to feast on their spools.”