Activist threatens to out cheating federal prosecutors over hacking cases

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The Desk: Matthew Keys

The Desk: Matthew Keys

A controversial online activist who was once convicted on federal computer hacking charges has threatened to respond to the government’s approach to similar hacking cases by releasing personal information of federal prosecutors in connection with an infidelity website.

In an e-mail sent to two federal prosecutors, Andrew Auernheimer — best known by his online aliases “weev” and “rabite” — said he would soon expose U.S. Department of Justice employees who misappropriated government computer networks to access the dating website Ashley Madison.

Ashley Madison bills itself as a portal for married individuals to connect with others for purposes of infidelity. In August, the website suffered from an apparent data breach made public when hackers posted user information — including full names and billing addresses — belonging to more than 30 million accounts.

Data leaked online included more than 15,000 accounts traceable to government e-mail addresses, according to a report by CNN. Other accounts were confirmed to have been created or accessed on government computers based on Internet Protocol, or IP, information that appeared in the leaked databases.

In his e-mail, Auernheimer focused mainly on federal prosecutors whom he identified as committing “acts of treason and sedition” for accessing the infidelity website from their work computers. He promised to “expose you all in the next days for the lying cheaters that you are,” starting first with employees at the office of Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney who charged Auernheimer with computer hacking crimes in 2012 (Auernheimer was convicted the following year; his conviction was overturned on appeal in 2014).

In his message, which was obtained and posted by the website Cryptome, Auernheimer said his decision to release the data came after several recent hacking prosecutions — including one involving the author of this post that ended in a contentious conviction on Wednesday (the conviction is being appealed). Other cases cited included those of Aaron Swartz and Jonathan James, two men who committed suicide while facing charges on computer-related offenses.

Auernheimer claimed to have evidence that employees in “each and every federal prosecutor’s office in America” had accessed Ashley Madison using government computers, something he reaffirmed in a series of Twitter messages exchanged with The Desk on Thursday.

There are more than 90 U.S. Attorney’s offices spread throughout the United States. An independent review of data from the Ashley Madison hack revealed there were, in fact, Justice Department employees among the more than 30 million user accounts compromised.

But an audit of the data by The Desk last month found a significantly smaller number of employees among the Ashley Madison leak than Auernheimer is claiming. In September, The Desk was able to identify less than two dozen Justice Department employees among the leaked data using government IP addresses and public records. Only five were positively identified as federal prosecutors.

The Desk is identifying the individuals here by initial and geographic location because of their use of government computer networks at the expense of taxpayers.

One, whom The Desk is identifying as K. W., works as a trial attorney while the others — D. E., D. M., A. B. and M. B. — are Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Those prosecutors worked in offices in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. when they used their credit cards to pay for access to Ashley Madison. A review of news articles, press releases and other public records found that the attorneys whose names appeared in the data continue to work for the Justice Department.

All five were approached for comment in early September and asked if their access to the website was for personal use or if it was connected to a criminal or civil investigation. Only one — M. B. — returned The Desk’s inquiry, expressing concern over being identified and refusing to elaborate further unless the conversation was taken off-the-record. The other four did not return repeated requests for comment.

It remains unknown why Ashley Madison was available to access on taxpayer-funded computer networks. The Justice Department did not return multiple inquiries about their computer use policy. And while the circumstances behind each individual’s access of the website remains unclear, at least one prosecutor admitted to CNN that his access to Ashley Madison was for personal use.

The prosecutor, who was identified only by his gender, told CNN that there was “no justification” for logging on to the website from his government computer, and that he “looked like a moron” now that his name had been exposed in the data.

“I have a solid reputation,” the attorney said, “and I’d like to avoid being the butt of jokes.”

That may be futile if Auernheimer goes through with his plan: The activist says he plans to expose the federal workers who accessed the site one-by-one in a series of news articles for GotNews.com, an online publication run by the controversial columnist Charles “Chuck” Johnson. Johnson, who is known for his brash — and sometimes truthful — exposés on politicians and newsmakers was recently banned from the social network Twitter after making disparaging remarks about a Black Lives Matter activist.

It was not clear if Auernheimer had access to additional data that implicated Justice Department employees at offices other than those identified by The Desk. He said in a message on Thursday his first story on the topic would be published “pretty soon.”

(Disclosure: A private law firm that represented Andrew Auernheimer in connection with his computer hacking case represents the author of this post on a separate matter.)