A North Carolina man has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy that illegally accessed the e-mail and social media accounts of Central Intelligence Director John Brennan and other senior government officials and then used that access to leak sensitive information and make personal threats.
Justin Gray Liverman, 24, of Morehead City, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, commit identity theft, and make harassing, anonymous phone calls, federal prosecutors said Friday. Among the 10 people targeted in the conspiracy were Brennan; then-Deputy FBI Director Mark Giuliano; National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper; Greg Mecher, the husband of White House Communication Director Jen Psaki; and other government officials. The group called itself Crackas with Attitude, and it was led by a co-conspirator going by the name of Cracka.
“She talks mad shit abt snowden,” Liverman said on December 10, 2015 in an online chat with Cracka, referring to a target who is believed to be Psaki, according to a statement of facts signed by Liverman and filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. (The document refers to Mecher and Psaki as Victim 3 and the spouse of Victim 3 respectively.) “If you come across anything related to [Victim 3’s spouse] let me know. If you find her cell or home number omg gimme.” Liverman went on to say he wanted to “phonebomb the shitt [sic] outta” Psaki.
The statement of facts shows Liverman discussing other intrusions with Cracka. After getting a cellphone number Cracka had unlawfully obtained from a breached online account belonging to Victim 2, Liverman dialed it to make sure it belonged to the government official, whose real-world identity couldn’t be immediately confirmed by Ars. Liverman “then paid an online service to automatically dial Victim 2’s phone number once an hour, for 30 days, and leave a threatening recorded message.”
“We will keep a close eye on your family”
Liverman later sent text messages to the cellphone that read in part: “We will keep a close eye on your family, especially your son.” The message included a photo of the son that had been unlawfully obtained from one of Victim 2’s compromised accounts. That same day, Liverman publicly posted the cellphone number to pseudonymous Facebook and Twitter accounts and wrote: “This line will be active for only 24hrs, so call/sms it if you want to talk to me … i also accept sexy nudes lol.” Two days later Liverman told Cracka: “if we could get [Victim 2] swatted that would be amazing.” Swatting is the term for falsely reporting violent crimes in progress to emergency responders in an attempt to elicit a response from special weapons and tactics police officers.
Cracka used Victim 2’s official credentials to gain unauthorized access to the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal, an online database that’s supposed to be available only to law enforcement officials. At Liverman’s request, Cracka used his access to obtain a list of more than 80 police officers and law enforcement employees in the Miami area. On January 6, 2016, Liverman posted the list online.
The group allegedly also published a 47-page security clearance questionnaire containing highly personal information, which Brennan completed to obtain his post. Around the same time, the group published a separate spreadsheet containing the personal data of the 29,000 FBI and DHS employees. A day later, a group member allegedly presented evidence showing it had hijacked accounts belonging to Clapper.
According to an affidavit filed in September, the group didn’t rely on computer hacking to break into restricted accounts. Instead, members used social engineering in which they impersonated their targets and various IT support personnel purporting to help the victims. On October 11, 2015, one of the suspects allegedly accessed the account belonging to Brennan by posing as a technician from Verizon. The suspect then tricked another Verizon employee into resetting the password for Brennan’s Internet service. Prosecutors said the suspects went on to take over a Brennan AOL account.
The group allegedly used similar techniques to access other accounts. The affidavit said another group member appeared to gain access to a law enforcement database by calling an FBI help desk and asking that Giuliano’s password be reset. Now, Liverman faces a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison at sentencing, which is scheduled for May 12.
The statement of facts filed with Friday’s guilty plea offers a window into the depravity and viciousness that motivates so many online intrusions. The perpetrators often succeed not through any technical skill but rather by making fraudulent phone calls that carefully exploit weakness in various companies’ customer support services. It’s not the first time social engineering has exacted such a high price, and sadly, it likely won’t be the last.