A former roommate of Mr. Ross M. Colby, the alleged hacker of Embarcadero Media-owned community newspaper Palo Alto Online, has testified that Colby told him about being involved in hacking a news website for money.
The news organization was subject to website intrusions and subsequent shutting down of five of its websites in 2015, including Palo Alto Online. Investigations led to Colby being charged with three misdemeanors and two felonies relating to the cyber-attacks on the company’s websites.
The roommate claimed that he did not believe Colby when told about his hacking of the newspaper website. According to the roommate, a software engineer by profession, Colby “has made other hard-to-believe remarks”. As such, he suspected Colby was just trying to brag dishonestly.
In the trial of a man accused of hacking into https://t.co/kuyAwph3nX, his former rommate testified that the defendant made 'hard-to-believe remarks' that included hacking into a newspaper website. https://t.co/SIGzji1CoZ
— Palo Alto Weekly (@paloaltoweekly) June 3, 2018
The roommate also claimed that he had been involved in discussions with Colby regarding computer security and Virtual Private Networks or VPNs (which make the IP address of a user appear to be different than their actual IP address). The roommate further claimed that he had helped set up a VPN for Colby and even observed him break into a website of a friend (with permission) to prove security weaknesses in the website.
Colby’s attorney, Vicki Young, challenged the roommate’s claims based on his drug-use history and past mental health problems, calling into question the reliability of his memory. Nonetheless, the FBI has produced incriminating evidence against Colby. This is because his IP address was used for gaining access to email accounts of Embarcadero IT employees.
Moreover, Young pointed out that these email accounts, including Colby’s own account, were also accessed through VPN-protected IP addresses, which are untraceable to Colby.However, this could be a ruse employed by Colby to deny involvement.
The general counsel for Private Internet Access (PIA), a VPN company, has confirmed that its IP addresses have been used to attack Embarcadero Media websites. However, the company has no record of Colby having subscribed to PIA’s services.
The allegation that Colby was funded by an unknown agency for these activities raises suspicion that there might be negative forces working against media freedom. Nonetheless, no evidence has surface to support this suspicion. The case is expected to be concluded by Monday as both parties prepare to offer their final arguments and evidence to the court.
The website intrusion on Palo Alto Online is worrisome. It is an attack that has been made on free press and journalism. With online censorship and control of content increasing in the world, incidents such as these are alarming for freedom advocates. Moreover, this incident highlights that VPN services can also be misused to perform illegal activities.
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