​Payback 13: Last of Anonymous anti-copyright hacktivists sentenced in Virginia

Reuters / Neil Hall

Reuters / Neil Hall

A terminally ill Ohio man, alleged by authorities to have played a pivotal role in the online operations of hacktivist group Anonymous, has been sentenced to six months home confinement for his part in a massive 2010 digital protest.

At a Friday morning
sentencing hearing, Dennis Collins of Toledo — the last of 13
defendants charged in a lengthy computer fraud indictment filed
in the Eastern District of Virginia in 2013 to learn his fate —
eluded what federal guidelines suggest should have been a year of

Instead, Judge Liam O’Grady ruled from an Alexandria, VA
courthouse that Collins should be more or less restricted to his
home for the next six months, citing the defendant’s apparent
disability brought on by a disease doctors told him is
progressive and incurable.

Clad in a black hoodie and carrying a portable oxygen machine
required to breathe, the grey-haired Collins, also known by his
online alias “Owen,” walked out of Friday morning’s hearing with
a grin. Prior to entering a plea agreement with prosecutors last
year, he faced a potential 5-year prison sentence and up to
$500,000 in fines and restitution if found guilty of conspiracy
to attack a protected computer. Nearly four years after he first
came under investigation, Collins pleaded last September to one
count of conspiracy to intentionally cause damage to a protected
computer, a misdemeanor.

‘Targeting the bastards’

Collins and a dozen others were charged in 2013 with what the Justice
Department called a coordinated series of cyber attacks waged by
Anonymous [PDF]. They had targeted the websites of the
Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture
Association of America and the United States Copyright Office.
The campaign of digital civil disobedience was called “Operation
Payback” and was undertaken by upwards of thousands of
hacktivists in late 2010.

Starting September 2010, participants in Anonymous-affiliated
chat rooms plotted against targets that were opposed to certain
websites, including torrent directory The Pirate Bay, which
enables users to freely download digital copies of movies, music
and other works, albeit in contravention of copyright law.

“We target the bastard group that has thus far led this
charge against our websites, like The Pirate Bay. We target
said a flyer circulated by Anons over Internet
Relay Chat (IRC).

“This will be a calm, coordinated display of blood,” the
flyer said. “We will not be merciful.”

According to the initial criminal indictment filed in Virginia,
Collins and a group of a dozen co-defendants, labeled the
“Payback 13”, conspired to take the RIAA and MPAA websites down.
They used a freely available tool to launch distributed
denial-of-service, or DDoS, attacks. These deliberately overload
a targeted server with illegitimate web traffic and if successful
jam it entirely.

Attorney Richard D. Green, speaking on behalf of the US
government, said at Friday’s hearing that Collins went from being
a casual observer to the DDoS campaign to becoming a direct
attacker. Green further charged Collins went as far as to
providing guidance to others and even the infrastructure that
enabled Anons to plot. “Owen” was an operator on an IRC server
where many of the plans were hatched, AnonOps, according to past
reports, and in court this week Green called Collins “one of
the more involved defendants in the conspiracy
.” In a
pre-sentencing statement filed in District Court last week, US
Attorney Dana Boente wrote that “Defendant Collins frequently
displayed leadership efforts
” within Anonymous.

Notwithstanding Defendant’s admitted leadership role, the
circumstances of the offense call for leniency
,” John
Kiyonaga, Collins’ attorney, countered in the defense’s own
filing earlier this month.

“Defendant acted purely from the conviction, misguided but
genuine, that his conduct promoted the free flow of information.
He made absolutely no profit, nor did he access any information
to which he was not entitled.”

‘I never harmed society; I contributed to society’

On Friday, Kiyonaga argued before Judge O’Grady that the nature
of his client’s crime “scores very low in terms of its
.” Collins “was acting on principle” and
trying to make a difference when he participated with Anonymous,
he said, and Collins’ quality of life and his need to constantly
tend to his mother — an octogenarian suffering from two forms of
cancer herself — had made him practically a shut-in. Collins’
activities with Anonymous, largely conducted from his basement in
Ohio, presented not just an opportunity to make a difference in
the digital sphere, his attorney argued, but an escape from

The Internet is a strange world,” Kiyonaga said.
It creates its own reality.”

Collins, his attorney added, believed “DDoS was a laudable
thing to do

“I never harmed society; I contributed to society,”
Collins said when he briefly addressed Judge O’Grady in a in a
low grumble — a timbre presumably a result of the stage-4 chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease that has left him with only 16
percent usage of his lungs.

When Judge O’Grady inquired about Collins’ targets — specifically
the US Copyright Office — the defendant was unable to explain why
he had singled out certain websites over others.

“Trust me, there was far more targets that I thought were
more deserving than the Copyright Office,”
he told the

Indeed, when MasterCard, Visa and PayPal announced near the end
of 2010 that they would stop processing funds intended for
WikiLeaks in the wake of the antisecrecy group’s decision to
publish a trove of leaked State Dept. cables, Anons set their
sights elsewhere and attempted to take the financial firms’
websites offline with a similar campaign of
internationally-dispersed DDoS attacks. Collins and 13 others —
the “PayPal 14” as they have been dubbed — were indicted in the
Northern District of California in 2011 over their involvement in
that operation. Yet while that case has largely been resolved,
the filing of new charges against Collins in Virginia in 2013
precluded him from participating in the plea agreements that have allowed his dozen
co-defendants on the opposite coast to walk away years later with
mostly slaps on the wrist.

The sentence imposed by Judge O’Grady on Friday — six months of
home confinement, sans electronic monitoring — was a far cry from
the year recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.
Destruction of computers as a means of protest, O’Grady said, is
not a lawful way to proceed with making a point, and if Collins
and his colleagues “wanted to make First Amendment
statements, they can do so in a lawful matter
Nevertheless, O’Grady veered away from the idea that
incarceration would serve as a deterrent to others interested in
waging attacks like those launched against the RIAA and others —
while acknowledging, nonetheless, that Anonymous remains
intact, as far as I can tell,” nearly a decade after
the amorphous hacktivist collective first began waging online
operations under that label.

‘Disparity of consequences’

With Friday’s sentencing, all members of the “Payback 13” have
now gone through the court system and are next expected to meet
in the coming months to discuss restitution. According to
prosecutors, the Virginia defendants caused $8,917,010.82 in
damages through their 2010 campaign, not to mention the damages
done in the pro-WikiLeaks operation shortly thereafter.

We’re pleased to
see one part of this extremely long and tedious fight wrap up, we
can only imagine how excited Owen must be to have the end of this
in sight
,” a hacktivist who shared
administrative duties on the AnonOps IRC server told RT.

On the opposite side of the country, however, Collins has yet to
be convicted related to the anti-PayPal operation waged shortly
after Anons launched their anti-copyright campaign. With the
Virginia matter aside, docket reports suggest Collins will resume
handling that matter early next month, with a status conference
currently scheduled for March 2.

Greene, the US attorney, deferred comment to the Eastern District
of Virginia’s Public Affairs Office, which declined to weigh in
when reached by RT. Kiyonaga did not immediately respond to RT’s
request for comment. An individual who did offer to weigh in,
however, is Andrew Auernheimer —a hacker who went through the US
justice system for more than three years before a conviction for
computer fraud was overturned by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in

“The disparity of consequence for crimes involving computers
is ridiculous,”
Auernheimer told RT’s Andrew Blake. “If
Owen had done the real-world equivalent of a sit-in, his criminal
trespass would be a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of thirty
days confinement. Here the government hits him with a felony and
wants a year of his life.”

Last month, the Obama
administration proposed
changes to
the country’s federal hacking law — the Computer Fraud and Abuse
Act — which, if approved by Congress, would rewrite the
legislation used to charge Collins, Auernheimer and hundreds of
others, by means of substantially increasing the potentially
sentences for CFAA violations, among other revisions.

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