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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Ex-Government Scientist Admits to Hacking Plot

WASHINGTON (CN) - A former Department of Energy scientist pleaded guilty to trying to infect government computers with a virus after he was caught in an FBI sting operation.

Charles Harvey Eccleston, 62, admitted to trying to damage the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) computer system with a "spear-phishing" attack.

Targeting a selected group of recipients, a spear-phishing attack is designed to look like an email from a trusted source. Opening the email unleashes the virus.

Eccleston is a former employee of the DOE and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He pleaded guilty on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Federal Court for conduct that took place in January 2015.

Since he was fired from the NRC in 2010, Eccleston had been living in the Philippines. Authorities detained him in March 2015 and deported him to the United States, where he remains in custody.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation discovered in 2013 that Eccleston had entered a foreign embassy and offered to sell a list of more than 5,000 email accounts of the employees of the government's energy agency.

Eccleston stated that, if the foreign country did not buy the list for $18,800, he would try to sell it to China, Venezuela or Iran, according to a 9-page statement of offense.

FBI agents went undercover, posing as the representatives of a foreign nation. Eccleston offered the list to them for $23,000. He said the list could be used to launch a viral attack or to shut down the NRC computer servers.

Eccleston sent his viral attack email to approximately 80 DOE employees. However, the link had been provided by an FBI agent and did not actually contain a virus.

When Eccleston went to collect $80,000 for his work, he was detained instead.

Paul Abbate of the FBI said Eccleston was "motivated by greed" when he tried to "sell information to a foreign intelligence service to enable a cyber attack against our information systems."

Eccleston will be sentenced on April 18. He faces 24 to 30 months in prison and a fine of up to $95,000.

"Eccleston admitted that he attempted to compromise, exploit and damage U.S. government computer systems that contained sensitive nuclear weapon-related information with the intent of allowing foreign nations to gain access to that information or to damage essential systems," John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.

Last fall, a federal judge denied Eccleston's request for pretrial release to visit his sick brother.

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