The Hacktivist

Calling himself an electronic Robin Hood, Jeremy Hammond used his computer savvy to attack a conservative group’s Web site. He called it an act of civil disobedience. The FBI called it theft.

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A flyer for the hacker community that Hammond supported

 

Jeremy Hammond first became interested in computers as an 11-year-old in suburban Glendale Heights. He refuses to talk much about his childhood, but his father, Jack Hammond, a self-described guerrilla filmmaker, music producer, and guitar teacher who still lives in Glendale Heights, was more willing to share. “The guy who worked in Little League with us had a computer business; he showed Jeremy a few things, and Jeremy caught the bug,” Jack Hammond says. Jeremy’s talents landed him the job of league secretary; he created programs to sort and rate players, and, by 13, was coding databases from scratch.

Hammond’s parents, who never married, split up around 1993. His mother, Rose Collins, moved and started a new family, leaving Jeremy and his twin brother, Jason, in the care of their father. With Jack Hammond bringing home about $35,000 a year, plus the monthly child support sent by their mother, the family became “the world champs of living inexpensively and well.”

As a child, Jeremy was obsessed with taking things apart, while his twin brother plucked away at the guitar. When the family got its first computer, Jeremy created his own online games. “He was in advanced-placement classes in high school,” his father recalls. “He won a district science award-first place for a computer program, of course.”

What pushed Jeremy toward more radical behavior was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. On the day the U.S. forces invaded, Jeremy encouraged 200 or so of his fellow students at Glenbard East to walk out of class, get on the train, and head to the Loop to join larger antiwar protests; remarkably, he did it with the approval of the school administration. “When you have students get up and leave classrooms, that is an aggressive move,” says Robert McBride, the principal of Glenbard East. “People recognized [Jeremy] as a student who had quite a bit of moxie. He struck me as old beyond his years, mature enough to work with the administration to have [the walkout] run smoothly.”

“He had such a good relationship with the administrators. They tolerated him as long as he stayed in bounds,” his father says.

After graduation, Jeremy attended UIC for a year and a half before being asked to leave for vandalizing a campus building and for drug possession. And while he continued for a semester at the College of DuPage, he never finished. Instead, he became more connected to a worldwide community of hackers through Hackthissite.org, and a companion magazine he started called Hack This Zine.

As the list of Hammond’s online activities grew, so did a lengthy real-world rap sheet. According to court records, he was arrested ten times between ages 18 and 21 and charged with disorderly conduct and property damage during protests. Another 2006 disorderly conduct charge stemmed from his attempt to incite a riot after chalking a sidewalk outside an Elmhurst Walgreens with the words “While you are shoppin’ / Bombs are droppin’.”

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Serious trouble started in February of 2005, when Kfir Alfia, the administrator and cofounder of a Web site called Protest Warrior, contacted the FBI. Alfia’s site is a popular destination for Bill O’Reilly–watching Web surfers, who contribute to a battery of conservative causes and shop in the online store for T-shirts that say “Except for ending slavery, fascism, Nazism, and communism, war has never solved anything.”

Alfia told the FBI that his site had been hacked and that its users’ credit card numbers and contact information had been stolen. What’s more, Alfia claimed, he knew who had done it. (This was familiar territory: a Protest Warrior member had once been accused of hacking into liberal-leaning sites.) A disgruntled former compatriot of Jeremy Hammond’s could link him to the break-in; evidence consisted of logs of online chats in which Hammond asked how to make donations to the American Civil Liberties Union on the stolen cards.

In an interview with the FBI, Hammond admitted he had hacked the Protest Warrior site and considered using the card numbers. He told the FBI that it “would be helping people under the thought of ‘Let’s steal from the rich to give to the poor.’” Although Hammond never charged anything on the cards (he claims he changed his mind; the government contends he just couldn’t figure out how), the prosecution sought five years in prison and a $2.5-million fine-$500 for each of the 5,000 credit cards that were stolen.

The case was a slam dunk for the government. Assistant U.S. attorney Brandon D. Fox, the prosecutor, says it is unusual to receive insider help from another hacker, and that, as a result, the trail of electronic evidence linking Hammond to the crime was considerable. “While Jeremy Hammond tried to make this about politics, we wanted to make this about what actually occurred, that he stole credit cards,” said Fox. “I hope with prosecutions like Jeremy Hammond, which certainly got a lot of publicity in the hacker world, people see what can occur if you steal information or assets. You’re going to be looking at a prison sentence.”

One night at Filter, a coffee shop in Wicker Park, Hammond and I sat among tables of people tapping away at their laptops. He rationalized his actions with mangled quotations from the 1960s radical Weatherman, Plato’s Republic, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. He finally admitted that if he had focused on civil disobedience instead of downright theft, he might have had more of a lasting impact and stayed out of jail. “They are going to rob me of some of the best years of my life,” he said, his knee bouncing anxiously.

In the end, Hammond threw himself on the mercy of the court and pleaded guilty to breaking into a computer system “and obtaining information,” a felony offense. He was ordered to pay $5,358 to Protest Warrior and sentenced to two years in a medium-security federal prison in Greenville, Illinois, about 50 miles from St. Louis. Assuming good be­havior, he will probably serve 20 months of his two-year sentence. After prison, his three-year probation agreement prohibits his involvement with hacker or anarchist groups until 2011, when he will be 26.

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