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30 Apr, 2014 17:19

FBI may put alleged Anonymous member behind bars for 440 years

FBI may put alleged Anonymous member behind bars for 440 years

A man accused of being a member of the amorphous hacktivist movement Anonymous now faces a total of 44 charges after federal investigators announced on Tuesday the filing of second superseding indictment against Fidel Salinas of Donna, Texas.

Salinas, 27, was first charged last October with one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after a grand jury in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas said he intentionally tried to hack into the computer system of Hidalgo County practically two years earlier. A superseding indictment was unsealed earlier this month on April 2 and introduced 15 additional counts against Salinas, but this week the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that even more charges have since been brought.

The FBI confirmed on Tuesday that Salinas now faces a total of 44 charges due to his supposed role in attempting to hack computer systems belonging to Hidalgo County, the La Joya Independent School District and The Monitor newspaper of McAllen, TX, as well as the computer of an unnamed female victim he is alleged to have cyber-stalked at least 18 times in December 2011.

Authorities say that Salinas conspired with members of the internationally-dispersed hacktivist collective Anonymous to coordinate these attacks, and spent at least six months conversing with others in a chat room affiliated with the group’s Operation Anti-Security, or Antisec, faction.

Salinas pleaded not guilty in October 2013 to the single-count indictment related to the Hidalgo County hack and was scheduled to stand trial in March, but proceedings were continuously put on hold until earlier this month when the first superseding indictment was unsealed on April 2 and he was further accused of 15 new counts involving the county computer system, the school district and The Monitor. Salinas again pleaded not guilty to all counts at an arraignment on April 10, but authorities have now confirmed that additional charges have been introduced in a second superseding indictment.

In Tuesday’s statement, the FBI said: "Salinas faces up to 10 years in federal prison on each of the charges, upon conviction." If correct, then prosecutors could seek upwards of 440 years.

The FBI's announcement was absent specific details about the latest charges, but those were made public on Wednesday afternoon when the newest indictment was uploaded to the PACER court records site.

“According to the allegations, between Dec. 23-29, 2011, Salinas had the intent to harass and intimidate a female victim. Allegedly, he repeatedly e-mailed her, attempted to gain unauthorized access to her website, made submissions through a contact form on that site and tried to open user accounts without her consent,” the FBI said in Tuesday’s statement.

“The indictment lists his alleged attempts to stalk her and hack into her website. According to the indictment, he repeatedly did so late at night and early in the morning, with his stalking attempts or messages sometimes occurring less than one minute apart from each other. He allegedly did so as part of a conspiracy or agreement with at least one other person, according to the charges.”

Earlier this month, legal counsel for Salinas told the Associated Press that prosecutors wouldn’t be able to persevere in court.

“They can’t make a case against my client,” attorney Alma Garza told the AP, adding that the case against Salinas has dragged on for two years.

Indeed, the trove of court documents that is accessible suggests that the authorities have been pursuing charges against Salinas for some time already. The first document in Salinas’ criminal docket is dated September 11, 2013 and consists of a criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Truoung Nguyen containing allegations about alleged hacks from early 2012.

According to Special Agent Nguyen, authorities narrowed in on their target that January after investigators linked an attempt to breach the site of Hidalgo County with a computer within a residence where Salinas was staying. Salinas “made over 14,000 attempts to log into their website server,” Nguyen charged, in turn slowing down the system for administrators and visitors alike and eventually requiring the county to hire tech specialists. In all, the hack is alleged to have cost Hidalgo County $10,620.32, according to the Sept. 2013 complaint.

Nguyen said the IP address of the computer used by Salinas was responsible for those thousands of attempted intrusions, and a search warrant executed a week after the hack occurred ended with the FBI seizing his laptops and recovering forensic evidence that linked him to the attacks.

Salinas was interviewed by FBI Special Agent Christopher Wallingsford several months later in September 2012 and admitted during that meeting and at a later one that he used a program on his computer to attempt to gain administrative access to the site, but that his efforts were to test the network’s security.

“Salinas claimed that he was not trying to do anything illegal but thought that if he gained access [he] would passed on that information to the Hidalgo County Network Administrator as a courtesy,” the complaint alleged.

Days after the Hidalgo breach landed him in handcuffs and the loss of his computers, Salinas authored an angry diatribe on his Facebook page believed to be directed at Hidalgo.

“Fuck you corrupt officials and politicians,” Salinas wrote. “When someone tries to give you advice that your servers aren’t secure and said person doesn’t modify, access or download and ‘redistricted’ information. I believe you say thank you instead of being afraid of what you don’t know by getting an invalid warrant, arresting and wrongfully hijacking all his electronics.”

Salinas, authorities say, ended the diatribe with a phrase commonly used within Anonymous: “We do not forgive, we do not forget.”

When the first superseding indictment was unveiled earlier this month, the FBI accused Salinas of 15 additional counts related to that hack and others, and introduced an overt fact to that charges: On or about June 6, 2011, Salinas entered the AntiSec chatroom affiliated with Anonymous. The hacktivist group’s name is otherwise absent from the indictment, except to note that Salinas joined a separate chatroom associated with the group six months later.

The FBI’s announcement this week did not blame Anonymous for the hacks per se, but instead acknowledged just that “Salinas is allegedly linked to the computer-hacking group Anonymous.” According to first superseding indictment, Salinas conducted a method of hack know as a SQL-injection against the targeted sites starting in November 2011.

With regards to the latest charged pertaining to alleged counts of cyber-stalking, authorities say Salinas did so with the aid of another party, but whether they believe those events were associated with Anonymous is not clear. The forensic examination of his computers seized in early 2012 reportedly contained logs from Anonymous-related chatrooms dating back to mid-2011, however, but reference to Salinas’ alleged role with AntiSec raises one other issue of note: authorities say Salinas began conversing with other AntiSec members on June 6, 2011 — hours before authorities arrested the Anonymous hacker responsible for that faction, Hector Xavier Monsegur, and recruited him as a federal informant. Monsegur is expected to be sentenced next week in New York City, but half-a-dozen hearings have previously been adjourned due to his ongoing cooperation with investigators.

The indictment made public on Wednesday now combines all charges against Salinas as found by the grand jury: counts one and two pertain to attempting to breach the county, school district and newspaper sites; count three alleges he conspired with others to use a computer “to cause emotional distress” to the female victim, identified only as “Y.V.”; count four involves an attempted hack of Y.V’s computer; counts five through 22 allege Salinas attempted to distress the victim multiple times over the internet on his own; 33 through 37 relate to the allege attempts to hack the woman’s computer; counts 38 through 43 pertain to attempting to hack the three other sites between November 2011 and January 2012 and count 44 accuses Salinas of attempting to recklessly cause damage to the Hidalgo County sight.

Counts one, two, four and 23 through 44 are all violations of the federal CFAA hacking law. Salinas is now scheduled to be arraigned on May 8 before Magistrate Judge Peter E. Ormsby.