Tor Ekland “steps up for the thankless shit,” says a fellow lawyer, “just because people need help.”
Over soggy scrambled eggs at the Hyatt Regency in Lexington, Kentucky, Tor Ekeland is doing his best to cheer up Deric Lostutter, a 30-year-old hacker who is about to be sentenced to federal prison. “It’s terrifying,” Lostutter says.
“It is what it is,” replies Ekeland, a fast-talking 48-year-old lawyer who sports a neatly trimmed beard and a crisp blue suit for this morning’s hearing. “You’re going to know what your future is going to be after today. You know what I mean?”
Some four years earlier, Lostutter, a member of the hacker collective Anonymous, went after local authorities in Steubenville, Ohio, who he believed were covering up the rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl by high school football players. He and another man hacked into the team’s fan site and posted a video in which Lostutter, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, threatened to dox the players and local officials (post their private information online) if they didn’t apologize to the girl. The hack and its aftermath helped rebrand Anonymous as a force for legitimate activism. Not only were the rapists convicted, but an investigation led to the convictions of three school employees (on charges ranging from allowing underage drinking to obstructing official business). Lostutter pleaded guilty to lying to an FBI agent and violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
After breakfast, Ekeland accompanied Lostutter to the courthouse, where a judge sentenced him to 24 months in prison—the maximum allowed under the plea deal and, despite Ekeland’s efforts, a year more than one of the Steubenville rapists had received. The prosecutor claimed the sentence would send a message that “hacks will be taken seriously as crimes, not as pranks or publicity stunts.” After the hearing, Ekeland countered that the sentence was really about “the DOJ being scared of the power of social media to organize social protests.”
Ekeland can sometimes come off a bit radical considering he used to be a corporate attorney in Manhattan. But six years ago he traded his fat paycheck for a not-so-lucrative private practice. Now he’s one of a handful of defense lawyers who specialize in computer crimes. “I’m much happier,” says Ekeland, who shows up at our first meeting in jeans and a black T-shirt. The corporate gig was boring, he explains—”it made me an alcoholic”—and he rarely saw a courtroom. When he first arrived in New York City prior to law school, he was involved in experimental theater, and it was the theatrical aspects of the court that prompted him to study law. Litigating “is super stressful,” he says. “I love it, though.”