Kentucky man gets prison term for hacking social media accounts and altering conservative comments

By Travis Gettys
Monday, October 14, 2013 9:12 EDT
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A northern Kentucky man was sentenced to five months in prison after he was convicted of hacking accounts on a social networking site to alter some users’ conservative postings.

Michael Pullen, a 38-year-old father of two from Dry Ridge, said he would replace racist or homophobic comments with silly statements, such as, “I’m super fancy. Why don’t you call me fancy pants?”

Pullen said he began commenting on the social networking site SodaHead.com out of boredom after he was laid off in 2009 from his job of three years.

He said he initially argued with other users over history and other topics.

“They would propagate misconceptions about the Civil War,” Pullen told the Kentucky Enquirer. “I would go in there and poke holes in their arguments.”

But Pullen said he figured out how to exploit a known bug in the site’s software to take control of other users’ accounts, and he said he began altering some comments to change what he considered to be offensive or inappropriate remarks.

“They were saying these devious, dastardly things like, ‘I can’t wait for the second Civil War so I can shoot me a liberal,’” Pullen said.

Pullen said he hacked user accounts for only two weeks, but the Secret Service caught on to his actions and sent federal agents to his home in March 2010.

He was indicted in November and later convicted by a judge of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and ordered to report Oct. 21 to a federal work camp in Ashland, Kentucky, and then spend two years on probation.

Pullen’s attorney, Dennis C. Alerding, said the case wasted at least $14,000 in taxpayer money, not including prosecutors’ costs or the cost to incarcerate his client.

“If what they wanted to do was to convince my client to never, never do it again … and punish him, they could have just as easily suspended his driver’s license for a year and fined him $1,000,” said Alerding, who was appointed to represent Pullen through the federal public defender program.

Alerding said prosecutors had wanted the judge to depart from sentencing guidelines and give Pullen two years in prison, but the judge decided to split the recommended 10-month sentence in half between prison and home incarceration.

Pullen’s attorney said the prosecution was not politically motivated but was instead driven by the company’s fear of losing customers over security issues.

“They would’ve presented the case to the Secret Service regardless of the politics, and I think it would’ve gone the same way,” Alerding said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office had been furloughed as part of the government shutdown and was unable to comment.

But the former director of technical operations at SodaHead.com had testified at Pullen’s sentencing that the hacking could have posed a threat to the company if it had continued.

The California-based site claims 3.8 million unique monthly visitors in the U.S. and 6.9 million worldwide, and it’s known for allowing users to create online polls and post them on other sites.

U.S. District Judge David Bunning ordered Pullen to pay $21,000 in restitution to the company as part of his sentencing.

“It was all just meant to be funny,” Pullen said. “I never meant to hurt, in any way, anybody. It was just kind of tweaking these folks – popping their balloons, so to speak.”

Updated at 10:53 a.m. Monday to include additional comments from Pullen’s attorney.

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