UNLV student arrested by FBI for hacking in support of Wikileaks 

Journalism student faces 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines if convicted

Mercedes Renee Haefer. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested UNLV student Mercedes Renee Haefer on hacking charges on Tuesday.

Haefer was one of 14 individuals arrested nationwide for their involvement with internet hacking group Anonymous, which synchronized an attack on PayPal’s website from Dec. 6-10 of 2010, according to an indictment filed by United States Attorney Melinda Haag in San Jose, Calif. on July 13.

The first charge in the indictment against Haefer was conspiracy and consent with hackers to “commit Intentional Damage to a Protected Computer,” citing PayPal’s protected computers as those attacked.

Haefer was also indicted for damage caused in the hacking attempt, without authorization to PayPal’s computers.

“Caused loss to 1 or more person’s during a one-year period from the defendants course of conduct affecting protected computers aggregating at least $5,000 in value,” the indictment said.

If convicted, Haefer faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for the first count and 10 years and $250,000 for the second charge.

Haefer was a journalism and media studies pre-major at the UNLV Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies.

The indictment also stated that Anonymous’ attack on PayPal was meant to avenge PayPal’s cancellation of its WikiLeaks account because of an alleged breach of PayPal’s terms of service.

WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange on Oct. 4, 2006, had an online-transfer account, which was suspended after WikiLeaks released classified diplomatic cables on late Nov. 2010.

WikiLeaks declared that the suspension of its PayPal account rendered it economically strangled, as its main source of revenue were private donations through the website, according to the release.

The FBI release stated that, as of now, the defendants who have been indicted remain innocent until proven guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” as the indictment contains allegations only.

UNLV journalism and media studies professor and director of the journalism school said Haefer had only taken three introductory journalism classes, but didn’t proceed through the program.

“This student was at the doorway of a journalism program but chose not to pursue,” Stout said. “Had she done so, she would have been exposed to classes that would have enhanced her decision making abilities.”

In a comment relating to Haefer’s participation at the journalism school, Stout said that the ultimate goal of the school was to prepare excellent journalists with a strong sense of ethics by stressing the subject of ethics in all the journalism courses offered at the school.

He added that the journalism school does not encourage unethical behavior in any way stating that journalism students should be prepared to make intelligent ethical decisions.

“We don’t condone unethical behavior that results in the harm of the audience,” Stout said regarding Haefer’s actions.

Haefer, who used the online alias “No” and “MMMM,” was part of a group that coordinated distributed denials of service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal, according to the release, which also stated that Anonymous referred to the attack as “Operation Avenge Assange.”

“Anonymous, also known as AnonOps, was an online collective of individuals that was associated with collective hacking attacks motivated by political and social goals, often referred to as ‘hactivism,’” the indictment said.

The indictment made the allegation that Anonymous attempted to “saturate” PayPal’s computer network with “external communication requests.” This overwhelmed and crashed PayPal’s website, making it inaccessible, according to the indictment.

According to the FBI release, over 75 searches have taken place up to date as “part of the ongoing investigations” into the attacks.

Contact Maria Ágreda at [email protected]