SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A man who started a crowd-funding campaign for jailed journalist Barrett Brown’s legal defense claims in a federal class action that the FBI is unconstitutionally spying on donors.
Brown was arrested in September 2012 after he shared an online link to files stolen in the 2011 hack of a security and intelligence contractor, Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor.
Brown faced up to 100 years in prison on charges of making internet threats, retaliation against a federal law enforcement officer and aggravated identity theft, among other things. After some charges were dropped, he was tried and then sentenced in January 2015 to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $900,000 in damages to Stratfor.
Hundreds of people have raised more than $40,000 for Brown’s legal defense, through an online crowd-sourcing campaign started by San Francisco-based computer systems administrator Kevin Gallagher.
Gallagher and anonymous Donor No. 1 sued the United States, Dallas-based FBI Agent Robert Smith, and Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Candina Heath. The Feb. 6 lawsuit claims the defendants used a subpoena to “unlawfully identify, target and surveil” anonymous supporters of Brown.
After FBI agents raided the home of Brown’s mother in early 2012, Brown allegedly threatened Agent Smith, who was involved in the raid, in YouTube videos and Twitter posts.
Gallagher says he learned from an email tip that Heath subpoenaed WePay Inc., the company that hosted the crowd-funding campaign.
An attorney for WePay confirmed that the company responded to a request for records, revealing donors’ identities and amounts donated by each.
The subpoena directed WePay to send the records directly to Agent Smith, indicating that the information was to be used in Brown’s trial.
Gallagher claims that sending the records directly to the FBI proves that the “claimed purpose” of using the information for Brown’s trial was “purely pretextual.”
“The true goal of the WePay subpoena, rather, was to facilitate the unlawful surveillance of the anonymous donors to the crowd-funding campaign,” the complaint states.
Gallagher claims that the FBI “cracked down hard” on Brown because it wanted to conceal its own involvement in the 2011 hack of Stratfor.
The complaint cites media reports indicating that the FBI was aware that the hack would take place, and let it occur so it could take down Jeremy Hammond, a prominent member of the hacking collective Anonymous.
Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013 for carrying out the Stratfor hack, which produced millions of emails and thousands of credit card numbers and cyber security secrets.
Gallagher and the donor believe the FBI continues to monitor the online activity of people who gave money to support Brown, which has “a chilling effect on protected First Amendment activity.”
“Donor No. 1 believes this scheme was initiated to harass the donors and retaliate against them for the donors’ exercise of protected conduct – making anonymous donations in support of Mr. Brown’s legal defense,” the complaint states.
Gallagher and his donor seek class certification and damages for violations of the First Amendment, violations of the Stored Communications Act and privacy violations. They also want Heath and Smith disciplined, and an injunction prohibiting the FBI and Department of Justice from engaging in “similar unlawful surveillance in the future.”
They are represented by Eric DiIulio with Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton in San Francisco.
Lisa Slimak, spokeswoman for the Northern District of Texas U.S. Attorney’s Office, and FBI spokeswoman Susan McKee declined to comment.