We Spoke to Barrett Brown from Prison
Last night, news broke that Barrett Brown's mother pled guilty to a charge of obstructing evidence. A few weeks ago, we spoke to the journalist and Anonymous associate who is now facing a potential 100-year sentence in prison.
Since my initial piece on Barrett Brown about a month ago, there has been a small development in his case. Barrett, of course, is the journalist who is popularly mislabeled as a spokesperson for Anonymous and is facing a century of hard time in a federal prison for threatening an FBI officer, hiding evidence that obstructed his warrant, and sharing a link within an IRC chat room that contained the stolen credit card information of Stratfor customers (a security company that had 5 million of its internal emails stolen from them). While Barrett is still sitting in a federal prison waiting to see a judge, news broke last night that Barrett Brown’s mother pled guilty to her own charge of obstructing a search warrant. She hid Barrett’s computers from the FBI and is now facing $100,000 in fines and six months of probation.
In addition, Jeremy Hammond, the hacker who is accused of actually hacking into Stratfor has been sitting in prison for 13 months without trial. His case was further delayed when it was discovered that the original judge who was appointed to try Jeremy is the wife of a man whose data was compromised by the Stratfor hack.
A couple of weeks ago, Barrett Brown called me from prison to talk to me about his case. We discussed the winding intricacies of his story in two 15-minute bursts, which was all the time the restrictions of his imprisonment would allow.
VICE: A lot of people say that you’re the spokesperson for Anonymous. What do you say to that?
Barrett Brown: I’m not. For two years now, I’ve denied that publicly. Every time I’m asked, it turns out that I’m not. The first thing people find when they google me should be a D Magazine article in which I explained that. No one is the spokesperson for Anonymous. It doesn’t work that way. I wouldn’t want that position if it were a position.
I don’t necessarily agree with everything Anonymous does. I don’t necessarily like a lot of Anons. I was very supportive of the dynamics that Anonymous represents. I’m very much an advocate (and continue to be) of these new sorts of communities to express yourself on the internet and the next move I’ll be making is deploying some communities—a little more structured than Anons’—to perpetuate themselves, and grow, while maintaining Anonymous’s core qualities. I’ve identified with Anonymous very closely for two years now, but one of the interesting things to me is how all the articles refer to me as the self-proclaimed spokesperson for Anonymous. They all copy off each other.
You did also call yourself Cobra Commander at one point.
Oh yeah, I called myself that after the NBC Nightly news called me the “underground commander in a new warfare.” Which is just a ridiculous thing to be called.
Yes, it sure is. What do you think of your 100-year sentence?
I’ve known for a long time that I was going to be incarcerated. There are several documentaries where I say that I’m going to jail at some point. You just can’t do these things and not fall on the radar of the FBI without retaliation or reprisal. I don’t want to talk to you about the case or the people involved at this point, but obviously I’m not terribly worried about it.
Why aren't you worried?
Just because of my knowledge, I know how long they were in there monitoring our stuff... I know what documents and records of my activities are available. They’re trying to claim that I intentionally tried to spread credit card information, but I was opposed to that. And I was on record being opposed to it. They’re just not aware of that.
They don’t have their shit together in terms of going through what they spied on me regarding... and I obviously know what’s there in that evidence, so... I’ve always been opposed to spreading credit cards.
Did you send that link out?
I send links out all the time. I don’t remember the exact occasion, I’ll have to look at that, I still haven’t seen the evidence yet. The discovery. Still waiting on that.
It would have been like, you know, the hackers would have posted something and said, “OK, here’s the Stratfor stuff.” You know, in general terms, and I’d be like, “OK, Stratfor stuff. Maybe they’re emails.” And as it turns out, in this file of emails and whatever else, there’s also the raw credit card information that Stratfor had encrypted.
OK, so you didn’t specifically say, “This is the credit card file”?
No! No! No! No, I’d have no reason to do that. I mean, again, to the extent the FBI were keeping tabs on me, which they clearly were since they know what links I was posting and when, they know that. They should know that.
I got in an argument with a prominent Anon about spreading credit card information. I will publicly tell you that WikiLeaks tweeted a little Pastebin document I wrote called “On Stratfor,” in which I kind of alluded to the fact that I’m not cool with that credit card information having gone out. The fact that they are trying to hit me with that of all things is... it’s about what I expect at this point. But it’s not tenable.
How did you first get involved in researching security companies?
With the HBGary incident. When Anonymous hackers hacked [the security company] HBGary and took all their emails, they had me and a few other people looking through those emails to figure out what they were up to. At that point, all we knew was that they were intent on exposing Anonymous and tracking down all the activists on behalf of the government. Then we learned there was more stuff going on and that became a big deal, and the CEO resigned, then the story kind of died out.
So I was keeping tabs on this whole story of intelligence contractors and the intelligence community that have interests in the online world. This is my main issue, and it will be for the rest of my life, I’m sure. The importance of this, compared to the media attention it gets… this is really a gold rush. This is something where serious things are happening, and they’re going to continue to happen in the next ten to 15 years, in terms of how governments use the internet to pursue interests that aren’t in the best interests of liberty.
There’s incredible potential from their standpoint, to take control of the conversation, to monitor and to manipulate the information flow, which is frankly important both for democracy and for dictatorships. And what we’ve seen, just from the HBGary emails and others here and there, is that there’s a very endemic problem that’s going on that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. And it’s not being addressed by Congress.
Did you ever personally hack into any security companies to steal their emails?
No, I’m not a hacker. I don’t know how to code or anything. I was a journalist for Vanity Fair, the Guardian, and all that. I don’t have any background in computer crime at all.
I write about these topics, too, but the one question that I really am confused about is that you seemed to fly too close to the sun when it came to your relationships with Anonymous members. If you were simply just interested in journalism, why did you choose to operate that way?
I was watching Anonymous form years back and was invited by certain Anons to help run things in a way and to participate. And I did. When Operation Tunisia started, that’s when I got directly involved as a participant, and I stayed involved. It was a month after that when HBGary happened, and I got pulled into it very quickly. I was one of the ones who HBGary had been monitoring during our work in the Arab Spring. They watched our IRC conversations. We were being monitored on behalf of a federal contractor. So I took that personally; we all took that personally.
We were trying to achieve something very important for North Africa, in conjunction with our partners in north Tunisia and elsewhere, and here are these fucking firms in Virginia and California trying to make money off the personal information of activists involved in this. We needed a secure environment to work. We don’t need companies that have relationships with governments, like the US, that have very, very mixed records in terms of their involvement with dictatorships in the Middle East, we don’t need them spying on our operations when we have Tunisians in there trying to take control of their country. So at that point, my main antagonist changed to US contractors. Not only was I not a fan, but they weren’t a fan of me because I helped to make sure that story took hold early on.
What would you say about software like Tartan, the online spy program that was discovered to disrupt subversive activist groups like Occupy? Or TrapWire, the surveillance-camera monitoring software said to be “more accurate than facial recognition” technology?
TrapWire is one of a number of disturbing things that has popped up recently. Persona management [the technology that fills the internet with believable but fake social media identities to push propaganda] is another. The thing about TrapWire, which was really disturbing to me, is how terribly wrong it was covered in terms of the story. The New York Times dismissed it. If you go look at their cover story about TrapWire, they quoted an unnamed Homeland Security official saying it’s not a big deal. And that was their research. It was ridiculous.
There’s a problem with laziness in the media. The fact that there were no articles, besides that very bad article discrediting it, was very alarming. I think people recognize that myself and Telecomix—who had already followed Cubic [the parent company that owns Tartan and TrapWire] for years before that—were right about that story.
TrapWire itself is not the most concerning thing that we had found, but in most cases I’m more concerned with the media failures than the technology. Because in this environment, the governments and their contractors can pull off anything they like without fear of there being overreaction to it.
I thought the TrapWire reaction was ridiculous, too, because there’s almost no information about it, yet everyone has dismissed it as a nonthreat. But beyond TrapWire, what would you say is the most threatening underreported technology that ProjectPM and Telecomix have discovered?
Persona management. I think that’s recognized within the industry as having a lot of potential in terms of what governments want, which is the ability to manipulate information and spread it to people, infiltrate groups… We as the public or journalists—even contractors—don’t know the level of technology that exists within that sector. There are thousands of these firms and their jobs are classified and compartmentalized. You have one firm doing one job and another doing another. But here’s what we do know: that the US government and most other governments have really betrayed the country repeatedly when it comes to privacy, propaganda, and keeping their technologies off the American people... the drones.
Do you think you’ve ever spoken to a sock puppet, i.e., a fake persona that was developed through persona management?
No, I doubt it. We really don’t know how sophisticated they are. My concern is less about where they are now, but where they’ll be at in ten to 15 years. If you see the patent we linked to in the persona-management page on ProjectPM [this has been down for weeks], there’s a number of areas they could be improved and they will be. But no, I don’t think they’re threatening right now.
Do you think there will be a breaking point for public awareness?
It’s hard to say when this issue comes up. It’s almost arbitrary what that breaking point is. My goal for the last couple years has and will continue to be to cause that point into coming to being. And I still am able to speak out from this prison, I still have the potential to force this issue, and whether or not I’m incarcerated for a while or whether I get out… whatever. Either way, I and other people in this movement are going to try and make that happen.
Everyone, especially journalists, should be interested in this. They should know more about it.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire