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Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Worker Pleads Guilty Over Attempted Hack

Former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Employee 'Tried to Sell Nuclear Secrets'

A former Department of Energy employee pleaded guilty today to a federal offense stemming from an attempt to hack agency computers to steal and sell nuclear secrets to Iran, China and Venezuela, the U.S Department of Justice said Tuesday.

Charles Harvey Eccleston, 62, who also worked at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), pleaded guilty to a federal offense stemming from an attempted e-mail spear-phishing attack in January 2015 that targeted dozens of DOE employees.

Harvey was caught in an FBI sting operation that was launched after he entered a foreign embassy in Manila, Philippines and offered to sell a list of e-mail accounts of all officials, engineers and employees of a U.S. government energy agency.  

Saying that he was an employee of a U.S. government agency and held a top secret security clearance, he asked for $18,800 for the accounts, stating they were “top secret.”

According to the DOJ, Eccleston, had been living in Davao City in the Philippines since 2011, was terminated from his employment at the NRC in 2010, reportedly due to performance and conduct issues. He was detained by Philippine authorities in Manila on March 27, 2015, and deported to the United States to face criminal charges, where he has been in custody.

In its announcement, the DOJ detailed the sting operation.

“Eccleston, a U.S. citizen who had been living in Davao City in the Philippines since 2011, was terminated from his employment at the NRC in 2010.  He was detained by Philippine authorities in Manila, Philippines, on March 27, 2015, and deported to the United States to face U.S. criminal charges.  He has been in custody ever since.


According to court documents, Eccleston initially came to the attention of the FBI in 2013 after he entered a foreign embassy in Manila and offered to sell a list of over 5,000 e-mail accounts of all officials, engineers and employees of a U.S. government energy agency.  He said that he was able to retrieve this information because he was an employee of a U.S. government agency, held a top secret security clearance and had access to the agency’s network.  He asked for $18,800 for the accounts, stating they were “top secret.”  When asked what he would do if that foreign country was not interested in obtaining the U.S. government information the defendant was offering, the defendant stated he would offer the information to China, Iran or Venezuela, as he believed these countries would be interested in the information.


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.  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.


Over the next several months, the defendant identified specific conferences related to nuclear energy to use as a lure for the cyber-attack, then drafted emails advertising the conference.  The emails were designed to induce the recipients to click on a link which the defendant believed contained a computer virus that would allow the foreign government to infiltrate or damage the computers of the recipients.  The defendant identified several dozen DOE employees whom he claimed had access to information related to nuclear weapons or nuclear materials as targets for the attack. 


On Jan. 15, 2015, Eccleston sent the e-mails he drafted to the targets he had identified.  The e-mail contained the link supplied by the FBI undercover employee which Eccleston believed contained a computer virus, but was, in fact, inert.  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 laboratories associated with nuclear materials.


Eccleston was detained after a meeting with the FBI undercover employee, during which Eccleston believed he would be paid approximately $80,000 for sending the e-mails.

Eccleston faces a prison term of 24 to 30 months and a fine of up to $95,000, and is scheduled for sentencing on April 18, 2016.

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For more than 10 years, Mike Lennon has been closely monitoring and analyzing trends in the enterprise IT security space and the threat landscape. In his role at SecurityWeek he oversees the editorial direction of the publication and manages several leading security conferences.