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    Hacker known for work with Anonymous launches digital news service

    Gregg Housh (front) is co-founder and CEO of Rebel News. With him in Rebel News’s Malden office is Anna Geoffroy, managing editor, and James Curcio, editor in chief.
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff
    Gregg Housh (front) is co-founder and CEO of Rebel News. With him in Rebel News’s Malden office is Anna Geoffroy, managing editor, and James Curcio, editor in chief.

    Like many journalists, Gregg Housh carries a credential. His just happens to be an ID card from a three-month stint in federal prison.

    For the founder of Malden-based Rebel News, a website launched in August to cover the intersection of hacking and activism, nothing says “legit” like a little time behind bars.

    It certainly beats a standard press pass.

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    “I bust out this, which always shuts people up,” Housh said, pulling the card from his wallet. “I’ve been through the fire.”

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    At 38, Housh insists he’s no longer the amoral mischief maker who used to pirate software just to feel an adrenaline rush. In fact, he has become a popular authority on cybercrime since pleading guilty to conspiracy to violate copyright laws in 2005.

    Last year, Netflix hired him as a consultant for season two of the hit drama “House of Cards.”

    Yet as he ventures into media entrepreneurship, Housh still lives by a code that many consider questionable — a vigilante ethos that encourages hacking in the name of a subjectively defined greater good.

    He is among the most prominent members of Anonymous, a loose collection of activists known for wearing Guy Fawkes masks at Occupy Wall Street protests and launching online attacks against hate groups and child pornographers, as well as government agencies and corporations like PayPal and Visa.

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    One of his best-known endeavors was Project Chanology, a trolling campaign he helped lead against the Church of Scientology that included pickets, pranks, and a brief takedown of the church’s website.

    Housh hasn’t stopped stirring up trouble; he just does it for what he considers noble purposes now.

    He may be an unlikely editor and publisher — a ninth-grade dropout with a criminal history and no previous experience in the press — and he has no high-profile investors, but if his record reveals anything, it is that when Housh latches on to a cause, he pursues it tirelessly.

    Housh boasts that he is so plugged in to the hacker community that he will scoop much larger news outlets on future cyber attacks. He said he may even hear that a company has been hit before its own IT team recognizes the breach. Stories on the website Monday also included a mix of feature articles about human rights, environmental protection, and civil liberties.

    Devan Rosen, director of the emerging media program at Ithaca College, said the watchdog skills that make a good activist can also make a good journalist. “Hacktivists try to bring to light information that never should have been secret. Good independent journalism has that same goal.”

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    There is a key difference, of course: While a journalist would typically rely on interviews and public records to expose a wrong, a hacktivist might illegally break into a company’s e-mail server to obtain incriminating messages.

    ‘I will stay poor the rest of my life if it means we’re covering the stuff I care about.’

    Gregg Housh, founder of Rebel News website 

    At Rebel News, Housh expects to walk a fine and potentially blurry line between his new world and his old one.

    He envisions logging in to hacktivist chat rooms where people he calls “close personal friends” are plotting their next moves. Housh won’t participate, he insists, but he’ll learn what they’re up to, and why, and be able to report on it before any other journalist.

    He said he’ll grant anonymity to people who don’t want to be identified, as long as he can verify that their statements are true.

    Gregg Housh’s Rebel News has one staff writer and a small band of freelancers.
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff
    Gregg Housh’s Rebel News has one staff writer and a small band of freelancers.

    Roy S. Gutterman, a media law specialist who directs the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, said Housh should be in the clear if he remains a bystander. “As long as the reporter did not participate in breaking the law or take too much of a step to encourage someone to break the law, journalists reporting news are not held criminally or civilly liable,” Gutterman said.

    Yet Housh could be called to testify about illegal activity he witnesses and ordered to identify the hackers responsible, said Jane E. Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota.

    Citing the landmark Branzburg v. Hayes Supreme Court ruling from 1972, Kirtley said that “journalists enjoy no First Amendment privilege not to testify before a grand jury about criminal activity they observed, even if they had promised confidentiality to their sources.”

    Not all of Housh’s stories will be so complicated. He and two editors, James Curcio and Anna Geoffroy, will also keep tabs on the tech and civil liberties worlds. Rebel News has one staff writer and a small band of freelancers.

    Housh hopes to fund Rebel News through multiple revenue streams, including a Kickstarter campaign, advertising, and a pledge system called Patreon that works much like a public radio membership, allowing readers to make automatic monthly contributions. He also relies on freelance Web-development gigs to support himself.

    With so many media outlets struggling to find a sustainable business model for online news, perhaps a computer genius can help figure it out. “My goal here is really to foster more action based on the news because I think right now too much of it is outrage porn and too much of it is clickbait,” Housh said. “I will stay poor the rest of my life if it means we’re covering the stuff I care about, and action is getting done. There’s too much to fix in this world.”

    In his own words:

    Dropped out of school in seventh grade

    “I was lucky to eat a meal a day for a few years of my young life. We had no money growing up. My dad was a bank robber who left us when I was 4.”

    Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate copyright laws in 2005 and spend three months in federal prison

    “I didn’t care about your cause. Hacking into things — it was just adrenaline, that’s all it really was.”

    Posted the first video created by the hactivist group Anonymous, “Message to Scientology,” on YouTube in 2008

    Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate copyright laws in 2005 and spend three months in federal prison

    Helped organize Occupy Boston protests in 2011 and 2012

    Launched Rebel News in August

    “My goal here is really to foster more action based on the news. Because I think right now too much of it is outrage porn, and too much of it is click bait. I will stay poor the rest of my life if it means we’re covering the stuff I care about, and action is getting done.”

    Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.