According to reports, a year ago, the Department of Justice threatened Fidel Salinas the hacker who is being targeted by the FBI, to put him in prison for the rest of his life for a variety of hacking crimes.
The crimes started with repeatedly scanning the local Hidalgo County website for vulnerabilities in early 2012. His house was raided as part of the investigation of his alleged hacking. He was arrested and all of his computer equipment seized, then released on bail.
A conviction and sentence from a Southern District of Texas judge this month resulted in six months in prison and a $10,600 fine after his guilty plea to a misdemeanor count of computer fraud and abuse.
However, before he took his plea his alleged ties to the hacktivist group Anonymous surfaced and he instead faced 44 felony hacking and cyberstalking charges, all of which were eventually dismissed.
With the case over, Fidel Salinas claims that, months after his arrest, he was called by the FBI and told to come to the local field office to retrieve his confiscated computers.
Two FBI agents over the course of a six-hour FBI interrogation in May, 2013, from the FBI’s Southern District of Texas office showed him evidence that he had logged into Anonymous IRC chatrooms. He says they brought up OpCartel, an aborted Anonymous plan in 2011 to hack Mexico’s Zeta drug cartel.
The FBI asked him to use his skills to gather information on Mexican drug cartels and local government figures accepting bribes from drug traffickers…and he refused. After he refused. Four months later, he was hit with a single computer fraud and abuse charge. Six months after that, prosecutors filed a superseding indictment, adding 13 more counts. The next month they added another 30, adding up to a total of 44 charges. Eighteen of those charges were for cyberstalking an unnamed victim, and each charge was based on a single instance of Salinas submitting junk text in a contact form on the victim’s website.
Fidel Salinas’ lawyer Tor Ekeland, who took the case pro bono last year, stated. When Ekeland took Salinas’ case and began to push back, the charges quickly fell to 28 counts and then a single-misdemeanor plea deal. Ekeland says the overreaching charges fit into a pattern of the FBI and Justice Department threatening hackers with ruinous charges to turn them into informants, and in at least one other prominent case, cooperative hackers such as Anonymous hacker Hector “Sabu” Monsegur which turned into a FBI informant or face the full brunt of charges alleged against him.
Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury, says
“Securing a defendant’s cooperation by threatening him or her with a mountain of charges is nothing new. But that’s usually accomplished by first charging the defendant and then allowing him or her to reduce punishment by working as an informant or offering information. I’ve represented many defendants who were propositioned by the government to come into a room and cooperate.”
Tor Ekeland states
“Fundamentally this represents the FBI trying to recruit by indictment, The message was clear: If he had agreed to help them, they would have dropped the charges in a second.”
The FBI has flatly denied his account, writing in a statement
“was never asked to conduct any investigative activity on behalf of the government.”
Also a Department of Justice spokesperson pointed out in a statement that
“at no point during the case did the defense ever present any testimony or evidence to show that any of the defendant’s hacking attempts had been made at the behest of the government or at the request of any alleged victim.”
Fidel Salinas’ admittedly has no proof of his claims. He had no lawyer present at the time of the questioning, made no recordings, and his story couldn’t be independently confirmed.
But Fidel Salinas’ lawyer says Salinas didn’t testify about his claims of the FBI’s hacking request as there was no trial. Fidel Salinas’ lawyer also advised Salinas not to tell the story until after his sentencing to avoid scuttling his plea deal. His story may help to explain the pile of unsupportable charges Salinas faced soon after. The initial 44 felony charges against Salinas, were likely an intimidation tactic designed to get him to fold, to get him to take a plea or cooperate.