Wired is reporting that the activist/journalist Barrett Brown has signed a plea agreement. They have pieced together that conclusion from a motion to seal the plea they say is on the docket (I admittedly don't see that yet myself) and from the fact that earlier this week the federal government filed a new superseding indictment that lessens the charges pending against Brown. To layer on the irony in this controversial First Amendment-involving case, Wired's Kim Zetter couldn't confirm with Brown's lawyers directly, because the lawyers and Brown himself are under a gag order.
Brown has the sort of colorful personality that lead Times columnist David Carr to once call him a "real piece of work" and Gawker's own Adrian Chen to call him a "a megalomaniacal troll. Not to mention a real asshole." He has, nonetheless, become a kind of cause célèbre since entering prison in September 2012. There he's been awaiting trial on a variety of charges, including identity theft. The charges stem to Brown's having posted a link to stolen credit card information in the chat room of a group he'd formed called "Project PM." Project PM spent its time trying to derive information from the documents hackers obtained. As Carr put it:
If Anonymous and groups like it were the wrecking crew, Mr. Brown and his allies were the people who assembled the pieces of the rubble into meaningful insights.
As a journalist who covers hackers and has "transferred and posted" many links to data stolen by hackers—in order to put them in stories about the hacks—this indictment is frightening because it seems to criminalize linking. Does this mean if a hacker posts a list of stolen passwords and usernames to Pastebin, the popular document-sharing site, and I link to them in a story or tweet I could be charged with "trafficking in stolen authentication features," as Brown has been? (I wouldn't typically do this, but I've seen plenty of other bloggers and journalists who have.) Links to the credit card number list were widely shared on Twitter in the wake of the Stratfor hack—are all the people who tweeted links going to be rounded up and arrested, too?
Brown's trial was set to be a battle over these crucial (and growing more crucial all the time) issues. Of course a plea will leave these issues unresolved. But the indictment against him was heavily stacked. There was a possible sentence of over 100 years attached. And as Wired notes, under this plea agreement "the maximum statutory sentence would likely be five years."