MANCHESTER, Ky. – Dozens of websites – many belonging to law enforcement organizations – escaped planned destruction and defacement when the FBI arrested high-profile hacker Jeremy Hammond in 2012.
“I was at the peak of my work,” Hammond told America Tonight from a medium-security, federal prison facility in Kentucky. “It’s a shame I got caught when I did.”
The political activist and computer whiz said he had already breached dozens of vulnerable websites and was “halfway finished” with preparations for a full-fledged cyberattack when federal authorities disrupted his plans. He said he was going to launch new online attacks every week. Most of his targets never even knew they were his would-be victims.
“F*ck FBI Friday,” he chuckled. “It was only heating up by the time I was arrested.”
Hammond, who associated with online activist group Anonymous and the hacker group LulzSec, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for a 2011 cyberattack that exposed tens of thousands of consumer credit card numbers and millions of private emails affiliated with the global intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor. He also admitted to hacking, destroying and releasing confidential information from various other websites, including one belonging to the Arizona Department of Public Safety in 2011.
“I intentionally and maliciously tried to destroy as many government websites … as I could,” he said. He added about his decade-long sentence: “It’s fair game, they maxed me out.”
With the time he has already served, Hammond’s scheduled release is Christmas Day 2020. He considers it a temporary inconvenience.
“Something they can never take, our determination, our principles, our passions,” he said. “These things are more valuable than a temporary loss of freedom.”
He is already setting goals for his life at age 35 – the time of his release.
Inside and offline
Hammond, dressed in olive-brown prison garb, didn’t smile when I shook his hand. He had uncombed, wavy brown locks, a scraggly goatee and an anarchy symbol tattooed near his thumb. Pull-ups and arm and chest exercises have helped him gain 40 pounds since entering the facility. The former vegetarian estimates that he now stands at 6 feet tall and weighs a solid 180 pounds.
I met Hammond in the visitor center at the Federal Correctional Institution Manchester – about two hours outside of Lexington, Ky. The facility houses nearly 1,100 male offenders, many of whom, Hammond said, have committed felony drug and firearm crimes. He said he currently shares a cell with two other men – one of whom is doing time for a crack cocaine conviction. The other just moved in.
For months, prison authorities restricted Hammond’s visiting privileges because of behavioral trouble at New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he was housed prior to sentencing. While there, he “tested dirty” for marijuana and frequently received discipline “tickets” for other rebellious behavior, he said. His behavior is better in Kentucky because he has more freedom, he said.
Hammond talks to his twin brother on the phone about every two weeks. But since his transfer to Kentucky, the only family members to visit him are his grandparents.
“It’s nice to spend time with them in their elder years,” he said.
It pleases me very much to read the newspaper or watch the news and see that a big company got hacked.
Jeremy Hammond- hacker and prisoner
There are plenty of prison activities to keep Hammond distracted. He holds a job in the laundry department, plays softball and chess, studies Spanish and works out every day. He also stays busy with books, mostly about politics plus autobiographies of revolutionary leaders and science fiction. Access to news is limited.
“It pleases me very much to read the newspaper or watch the news and see that a big company got hacked,” he said.
Other inmates have learned of Hammond’s computer genius and have tried to recruit him to help them sneak on to Facebook. But as part of his punishment, Hammond isn’t allowed Internet access – something he considers a human right.
“We are kept in the dark,” he said.
Hammond is only permitted to use a Web-based messaging system called Trulincs. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates are only able to send and receive electronic messages from individuals on their approved contact lists. Hammond said his messages often take days to reach their final destination.
“I’m lucky to have it,” he said.
Although he enjoyed the challenge of hacking, living without Internet isn’t the end of the world for Hammond.
“It wasn’t really my life,” he said, explaining that he was more of an activist than he was a computer guy.
A self-described revolutionary, anarchist and hacker, Hammond fully understands why he is kept in the dark. Even eight months after his sentencing, he isn’t sorry for the online attacks that affected thousands of people he never personally knew.
“I don’t feel any remorse for what I did,” he admitted. “I feel good about what I did.”
Hammond’s actions exposed data related to 860,000 Stratfor clients and flaunted 60,000 credit card numbers, leaving them vulnerable to $700,000 in fraudulent charges.
Most of the time he was hacking, he said, he was at a coffee shop, using a university network or in an abandoned building, borrowing wireless Internet from a place across the street. He said his failure to stay mobile made him easier to track.
“Considering the gravity of the work that I was doing, I was really foolish,” he said. “I should have been underground.”
When asked whether all of it was worth it – considering the sentence he received – he didn’t hesitate.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I had a good run.”
His hack on the Arizona Department of Public Safety website leaked thousands of pages of documents, passwords, schedules, phone numbers, emails and other information, including confidential law enforcement strategies.
“I targeted law enforcement systems because of the racism and inequality with which the criminal law is enforced,” Hammond said in a court statement on the day of his sentencing.
However, in Arizona, it was the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, not the Arizona Department of Public Safety, that came under fire amid accusations of racial profiling and large immigration sweeps.
“I did take a look at their site,” Hammond said of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. “Clearly I would’ve preferred to go after [Sheriff Joe Arpaio] personally. That would’ve been a prize.”
He added: “Maybe I could’ve [hacked into it] if I spent more time.”
Ultimately, he found a vulnerability in an Arizona Fraternal Order of Police website that led him to the Department of Safety hack. And any law enforcement website was a worthy target for Hammond, a prison abolitionist, who said he would prefer a world without police. He considers law enforcement the “armed wing of the 1 percent” and he says any officer of the law is a participant in a “machine of injustice.”
“If you get a badge and if you take the oath, I think you are fair game,” he said. “I shed no tears for any of these people.”
At the time of sentencing, a judge used Hammond’s own chat room language against him to prove that his motivations behind the cyberattacks were more than just political, one of his key defense arguments.
“It is, in fact, clear that [Hammond’s] aim was to break into critical computer systems, steal data, deface websites, destroy files and dump online the sensitive personal and financial information of thousands of individuals, all with the objective of creating – in Mr. Hammond’s words – ‘maximum mayhem,’” New York-based U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said prior to handing down Hammond’s sentence, referring to a remark Hammond made in a chat room about the destruction he hoped to cause his targets.
“These are not the actions of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, John Adams or even Daniel Ellsberg. In the Stratfor hack, Mr. Hammond disclosed an enormous amount of confidential information, not even remotely in the public interest.”
I targeted law enforcement systems because of the racism and inequality with which the criminal law is enforced.
Jeremy Hammond- In a court statement on the day of his sentencing
Does Hammond regret his word choice?
“Absolutely not,” he said, calling the word “mayhem” youthful, Internet slang. “I am all for mayhem, for real.”
Although he maintained multiple online screen names to disguise his true identity, Hammond said he became sloppy when he revealed too many personal details about himself to a fellow hacker, which ultimately led to his downfall. He partly blamed his own consumption of weed and acid for allowing his guard to drop.
That fellow hacker would turn out to be an FBI informant, Hector Monsegur, who helped authorities capture Hammond. Online, Monsegur went by the nickname Sabu.
“I had never even heard of Stratfor until Sabu brought it to my attention,” Hammond said during his sentencing. “At the time, Sabu was encouraging people to invade systems and helping to strategize and facilitate attacks. He even provided me with vulnerabilities of targets passed on by other hackers, so it came as a great surprise when I learned that Sabu had been working with the FBI the entire time.”
For a moment at the Kentucky prison, Hammond’s voice went silent at the mention of Monsegur’s name.
“I have no interest in engaging in dialogue with him,” Hammond said.
In May, after serving a total of seven months, Monsegur was allowed to go free – sentenced to time served – followed by a year of supervised release. Monsegur received the reduced sentence for cooperating with federal authorities and helping take down other high-profile hackers, like Hammond.
“I’m kind of upset that people are apologetic toward him, trying to justify what he did,” Hammond said. “He sold out his friends … He set us back so much. We were really on the tip of the iceberg. There is no way to justify what he did.”
Hammond said he has many unanswered question about Monsegur’s involvement with the federal investigators. He said Sabu asked him for help hacking into government-run websites, affecting thousands of domain names in nearly a dozen other countries.
“Was he directed to specifically ask me to do these things?” Hammond wondered. He said everybody wants to know if the NSA was involved in the hacks he was encouraged to perform.
“We really decimated the Turkish networks,” Hammond said. “It would be the NSA’s wet dream.”
It’s best to keep them guessing as to what I’m going to be doing.
When he’s released, Hammond isn’t certain what he’ll end up doing. He said he wouldn’t mind working as an online developer of tech infrastructure for activist groups, and he is considering a move to South America. But right now, good food, coffee and music are at the top of his list for when he gets out.
There are a lot of things Hammond said he misses from the outside: friends and family, making music, biking along the lakefront, going to punk rock shows, reading obscure critiques on blogs and looking over code.
Will there be future hacks upon his release?
“There will be mayhem and mass havoc,” he laughed, but then clarified that he knows all eyes would be on him.
“I’m not going to be back in the life of breaking the law,” he said, adding: “It’s best to keep them guessing as to what I’m going to be doing.”