Couple Pleads Guilty In Computer Hacking Case
PITTSBURGH - A Mt. Washington couple pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of recklessly damaging a computer and password trafficking, United States Attorney David J. Hickton announced today.
Jonathan Cunningham, 29, and Alyson Cunningham, 25, both of Pittsburgh, Pa., pleaded guilty to two counts of the five-count superseding indictment before United States District Judge David S. Cercone.
In connection with the guilty plea, the court was advised that on Nov. 28, 2011, Alyson Cunningham had been fired from a law firm located in Pittsburgh, referred to as "VG," In retaliation for the firing, Matthew West, acting at Alyson and Jonathan Cunningham's encouragement, logged into VG servers using an internal company password provided to him by Alyson Cunningham over Facebook. West utilized a VPN proxy server located in Germany to use the password to access VG servers, so as to shield his identity. Once West accessed the server, he installed software on the server which could be used to capture passwords of anyone on the firm’s network.
On Nov. 29, 2011, West sent a partner at VG law firm an email from the account email@example.com that stated that the firm’s web servers had been compromised, and that their backup files had been copied and deleted. This email, which was used to notify the victim company of the hack caused by the usage of the illegally trafficked password, electronically traveled from West's computer in Pennsylvania, to Google's servers in California, before arriving back at VG's server in Pennsylvania. The email further stated that “we are not interested in ruining your business, but routinely checking that business is fair and just. Our motive is to solely capture and record 100% of Pittsburgh business records and operations and protect it or use it against you as we could if Anonymous had a reason and needed to.” Anonymous is a loosely connected network of computer hacker/activists who are known to intrude upon computer networks for political purposes.
According to the victim company, neither Alyson Cunningham, Jonathan Cunningham, or Matthew West had authority to access their computer server, nor did they have authority to place malware onto VG's servers.
Internet chats indicate that Jonathan Cunningham was actively communicating with West during the hack into VG's servers, providing instruction and suggestions, including suggesting the use of specific VPN servers. When IM chatting with West on the night of the hack, Jonathan Cunningham and Alyson Cunningham alternated in their use of Alyson’s Skype account when communicating with West about the hack.
Judge Cercone scheduled sentencing for Oct. 15, 2013, 2013 at 10:00 and 10:30 a.m. The law provides for a total sentence of two years in prison, a fine of $200,000, or both. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed is based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the criminal history, if any, of the defendant.
Pending sentencing, the court continued the Cunningham's on bond.
Assistant United States Attorney James T. Kitchen is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted the investigation that led to the prosecution of Jonathan and Alyson Cunningham.