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Former Nuclear Agency Worker Sentenced to Prison for Attempted Hack

A former employee of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for trying to hack into DoE computers in an attempt to steal nuclear secrets.

Charles Harvey Eccleston, 62, pleaded guilty in early February to one count of attempted unauthorized access and intentional damage to a protected computer.

Eccleston worked at the NRC until 2010, when his employment was terminated reportedly due to performance and conduct issues, and moved to Davao City in the Philippines the next year.

The man came into the attention of U.S. authorities in 2013 after he entered a foreign embassy in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and offered to sell a list of more than 5,000 email addresses belonging to officials, engineers and employees of a U.S. government energy agency. He claimed the accounts were “top secret” and asked for $18,800 for the information, which he was allegedly prepared to sell to countries such as Iran, China and Venezuela.

Later that year, Eccleston met with an undercover FBI agent and offered to sell 5,000 email addresses belonging to NRC employees for $23,000, saying that a foreign country could use the information to deliver a piece of malware to computers within the NRC. The malware could then be used to access sensitive information or disrupt NRC servers, Eccleston said, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The undercover agent purchased 1,200 email addresses from Eccleston for $5,000. An analysis of these email addresses showed that the information was publicly available.

During a follow-up meeting with another undercover agent in 2014, Eccleston claimed to have a list of 30,000 email addresses belonging to DoE employees. He offered to design and send spear-phishing emails that would deliver a piece of malware. Over the next several months, the man designed spear-phishing emails that advertised conferences related to nuclear energy and included links that could be set up to point to a piece of malware that would be downloaded on the victim’s machine.

Eccleston sent out the emails to roughly 80 DoE employees in January 2015, but the link that was supposed to point to a piece of malware was provided by the undercover FBI agent so it was harmless.

The suspect was detained by Philippine authorities in March 2015 and deported to the United States, where he was indicted in May. The man was cuffed after a meeting with the undercover FBI employee, who promised him $80,000 for sending out the spear-phishing emails.

In addition to the prison sentence, Eccleston has also been ordered to forfeit $9,000, representing the total amount of money given to him by undercover agents during the investigation.

Related Reading: Nuclear Agency's Cybersecurity Center Not Optimized

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.