Hackers claiming to be members of the Internet activist group Anonymous took over the website of the US Justice Department's Sentencing Commission early Sunday morning.
The attackers claimed the hack in the name of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist in his own right who committed suicide mid-January. Swartz was to have appeared in court in April to face a number of felony charges related to his involvement in downloading millions of academic articles from the online archive JSTOR.
In their attack, the hackers said that Swartz's death had "crossed a line" for Anonymous, and that the site defacement was but the first attack in "Operation Last Resort" (see video, bottom). The attackers claimed to have compromised a number of additional government systems and are threatening to publicise information taken in their alleged other attacks, releasing redacted versions of their allegedly purloined data to one media outlet at a time at regular intervals.
The attack on the Sentencing Commission's page was, if nothing else, a symbolic move.
"With Aaron's death we can wait no longer. The time has come to show the United States Department of Justice and its affiliates the true meaning of infiltration. The time has come to give this system a taste of its own medicine. The time has come for them to feel the helplessness and fear that comes with being forced into a game where the odds are stacked against them," reads part of the hackers' statement.
According to FBI representatives, the agency is investigating the hack.
"We were aware as soon as it happened and are handling it as a criminal investigation," said the Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services branch, in a statement emailed to Reuters. "We are always concerned when someone illegally accesses another person's or government agency's network."
Although it's been reported that Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and possibly $1 million (£634,640) in total fines related to the charges against him, there were numerous talks of a potential plea bargain discussed between federal prosecutors and Swartz's attorney, Elliot Peters, as close as two days prior to Swartz's death. The deal would have required Swartz to plead guilty to all 13 counts against him but, in return, prosecutors would have only gone after six months (or less) of prison time.
Additionally, talk of a lessened sentence – and denials that prosecutors were ever pushing for maximum punishments – came up in US attorney Carmen Ortiz's official statement regarding Swartz's case.
"The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct – while a violation of the law – did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases," Ortiz said.
"That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct – a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting."