The FBI charged second-year in the College Igor Serebryany last week with distributing secret documents on the Internet that could help users of DirecTV, a leading satellite television provider, steal their signals. Court documents released by the FBI indicated that Serebryany admitted to distributing the documents on the Internet.
Serebryany, 19, faces a maximum sentence of ten years and a fine of $250,000 for the charges brought against him.
FBI investigators told the Associated Press that they do not believe the espionage was committed for money but rather "to help...the hacking community."
Serebryany declined comment.
Serebryany came upon the documents when DirecTV delivered about 27 boxes of confidential material related to a lawsuit to its law firm Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in August. To help its lawyers manage all the documents, the firm hired an outsourcing firm, Uniscribe Professional Services of Norwalk, Connecticut, where Serebryany's uncle worked.
Because the documents were so sensitive, Uniscribe set up a special imaging center at the law firm's offices to which only a few people had access. After the company ordered the process of copying the documents to be expedited, Serebryany was brought in by his uncle to help.
The law under which Serebryany was charged, the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which prevents individuals from giving away secrets for others' benefit, is relatively unused.
Although Serebryany may not have profited economically from the documents, the law also states that giving away secrets for others' benefit is illegal.
The sensitive documents in question were blueprints of DirecTV's security card, P4, which the company spent $25 million developing and which prevents users from receiving the signals for free.
Despite recent events, the P4 card was not compromised by the dissemination of this information, according to Robert Mercer, a spokesman for DirecTV.
"We are in the process of swapping our old cards for the new P4s. We have not seen the compromising of the new cards, so we will continue to do that," Mercer said.
The large investment was likely designed to circumvent an escalating technology race. Older, pirated cards are widely traded and sold illegally among satellite customers, leading companies to occasionally destroy rogue cards by sending damaging electronic signals across their systems, forcing subscribers to buy new cards.
"This was done with the intent to provide individuals in business to try and hack into DirecTV. This was our concern; it wasn't the threat of our competitors learning our secrets," Mercer said, referring to Serebryany's alleged theft.
At the University, Serebryany is heavily involved in the Chicago Public Schools' University of Chicago Internet Project (CUIP) in the Neighborhood Schools Program, performing network and technology maintenance. The program hires approximately 400 students every year to work in the area's underprivileged schools.
The director of CUIP, Duel Richardson, had only good things to say of Serebryany, describing him as "a young man with considerable technology expertise [who] should have his day in court [to answer the allegations]."
This year Serebryany, who was born in the Ukraine but now lives in Los Angeles, works in the Reavis Elementary school, a K-8 public school.