A 35-year-old Florida man pleaded guilty on Monday to hacking into celebrities’ email accounts and sharing nude photos and stolen information to celebrity websites. Christopher Chaney will be sentenced in July and could spend more than 60 years in prison as well as three years on probation. He also faces up to $2.5 million in fines and restitution to those whose accounts he hacked.
Chaney was arrested last October and charged with a host of crimes, including wiretapping, unauthorized computer access and identity theft. Although it’s alleged he hacked into more than 50 celebrity accounts—including actresses such as Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis and Vanessa Hudgens, as well as singer Christina Aguilera—under the terms of his plea agreement, Chaney pled guilty to just nine criminal counts. He’ll also have to give up his electronics, including cell phone, computers and hard drives.
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Exploiting Email Loopholes
Chaney learned it can be easy to gain access to celebrity email accounts. Once he figured out a celeb’s user name, he’d go to the “forgot password” option, then answer the security questions based on previously published information. These security questions often ask for details such as the city in which you were born or name of your high school mascot. It’s information that’s easy to find for public figures.
After gaining access to a celebrity’s email account, Chaney reportedly stole private photos, contact information for other celebrities and personal documents. It’s even alleged that he would use a celebrity’s email address to contact their other famous pals, asking them to share even more private photos. In turn, he passed the information along to gossip websites and another hacker.
Chaney’s guilty plea comes about two years after college student and hacker David Kernell was found guilty of breaking into Sarah Palin’s private email account.
Kernell originally accessed Palin’s email during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Palin was the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket. Like Chaney, Kernell used the “recover password” feature and personal data (including Palin’s birth date) to gain access the then-governor’s Yahoo account. He was sentenced to a year in prison and three years of supervised release for his crimes.
Hackers Face Criminal Charges
Email hacking is a misdemeanor or felony crime that can be prosecuted under a variety of state and federal laws. These include:
Wire fraud: Using any of a variety of electronics (including the computer, phone or TV) to get money or property from someone else through deceptive means. Typically the fraud must cross state lines or international borders.
Computer fraud: Similar to wire fraud, but limited to crimes involving a computer used by the US government or a financial institution, or a computer that impacts commerce or communication.
Identity theft: Obtaining and using someone’s identity for fraudulent purposes.
Obstruction of justice: Interfering with a government investigation, including erasing evidence of your crimes.
And hacking doesn’t require a high-profile victim to be considered a crime. Imagine you suspect your boyfriend is cheating on you, so you hack into his Gmail account to read his emails. Or picture the student who hacks into a teacher’s email and sends the entire school a prank email. Both of those scenarios—and more—are crimes.
“Hacking is illegal and can expose you to both serious criminal and civil liability,” says attorney Enrico Schaefer, founder of Internet and communications law firm Traverse Legal. “Most people fail to realize that these risks are also there when you hack or unlawfully gain access to a friend, acquaintance or family member’s computer or email account. Many states define ‘unauthorized access’ broadly, covering many activities which people engage in all too often.
“If it is not your email, Facebook or cell phone account, don’t log into it. You could ding yourself the target of a disgruntled ex-friend and overzealous prosecuting attorney.”
Safeguard Your Own Data
If you’re concerned about becoming a victim yourself, take some common-sense steps to better secure your accounts and your privacy:
Avoid using security questions that others could answer. Better to choose an option such as, “What is your favorite movie?” than “What is the name of the town in which you were born?”
Many online accounts let you specify alternate ways to contact you—such as a second email address or cell phone text message—in case you forget your password. Consider using these options.
Change your password frequently and don’t share it with others.
Avoid using the same password for different websites or accounts. It can be tough to remember log-in credentials for multiple sites, so consider using password-manager software to help.
If you have any reason to suspect that an account has been hacked—such as voice mails being deleted or new email messages being marked as read—change the password immediately. The same is true if a company tells you that your data may have been compromised.