A former employee at the Department of Energy (DoE), Charles Harvey Eccleston , has pleaded guilty of cyber espionage. The man attempted to infect al least 80 colleagues at the DOE spreading a malware with the intent to gain control of the victims’ machines.
The man was operating to open the door to foreign hackers, allowing them to exfiltrate sensitive information related to nuclear weapons.
According to the US Department of Justice, Eccleston attempted unauthorized access and intentional damage to a protected computer.
“Charles Harvey Eccleston, 62, a former employee of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), pleaded guilty today to a federal offense stemming from an attempted e-mail “spear-phishing” attack in January 2015 that targeted dozens of DOE employee e-mail accounts.” reads the statement issued by officials with the US Department of Justice.
Eccleston worked for both the DOE and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, his deep knowledge of the environment allowed him to run surgical attacks against current employees. The employees received a highly targeted spear-phishing e-mails likely containing malicious links.
The man tried to resell information about his colleagues to foreign governments, prosecutors confirmed the case was discovered in 2013, after Eccleston visited an unnamed foreign embassy in Manila, Philippines and offered for sale more than 5,000 e-mail addresses of internal employees (i.e. Officials, engineers, and employees of a US government agency).
The agents from the FBI collected evidence on the man’s intent posing as embassy employees. The man was also offering the access to agency systems to advantage espionage activities.
The man used emails that pretended to be sent by the organizations behind conferences related to nuclear energy.
“Thereafter, Eccleston met and corresponded with FBI undercover employees who were posing as representatives of the foreign country. During a meeting on Nov. 7, 2013, he showed one of the undercover employees a list of approximately 5,000 e-mail addresses that he said belonged to NRC employees. He offered to sell the information for $23,000 and said it could be used to insert a virus onto NRC computers, which could allow the foreign country access to agency information or could be used to otherwise shut down the NRC’s servers.”states the press release.” The undercover employee agreed to purchase a thumb drive containing approximately 1,200 e-mail addresses of NRC employees; an analysis later determined that these e-mail addresses were publicly available. The undercover employee provided Eccleston with $5,000 in exchange for the e-mail addresses and an additional $2,000 for travel expenses.”
“Over the next several months, Eccleston corresponded regularly by e-mail with the undercover employees. A follow-up meeting with a second undercover employee took place on June 24, 2014, in which Eccleston was paid $2,000 to cover travel-related expenses. During this meeting, Eccleston discussed having a list of 30,000 e-mail accounts of DOE employees. He offered to design and send spear-phishing e-mails that could be used in a cyber-attack to damage the computer systems used by his former employer.”
The FBI undercover agents provided a link to Eccleston to include in the malicious email. The man believed the link was pointing to a malicious domain used to serve a malware, instead, it was harmless. Altogether, the defendant sent the e-mail he believed to be infected to approximately 80 DOE employees located at various facilities throughout the country, including offices and laboratories associated with nuclear materials.
Eccleston was fired from the NRC in 2010 for unknown reason, and went to Davos City in the Philippines in 2011.
“Combating cyber-based threats to our national assets is one of our highest priorities,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin said in a statement.
“We must continue to evolve our efforts and capabilities to confront cyber enabled threats and aggressively detect, disrupt and deter them.”
Eccleston was detained by Philippine law enforcement on March 27, and on Friday he will have the a court appearance on at the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
According to the Justice Department, the man will remain detained until a hearing scheduled for May 20.
This type of crime provides a penalty of up to 10 years and financial penalties, but because the Eccleston age and previous records, according to the advisory federal sentencing guidelines, the former DOE worker likely to receive a prison term of 24 to 30 months and a fine of up to $95,000.
(Security Affairs – terrorism, Europol)