Iranian Man Charged With Hacking HBO and Leaking 'Game of Thrones'

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Federal prosecutors have charged an Iranian man in connection with the cyberattack against HBO, saying he broke into its computer servers, stole confidential data and tried to extort the company for millions.

Behzad Mesri, who has previously worked as a hacker for the Iranian military, stole information including scripts and plot summaries of unaired "Game of Thrones" episodes, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New York.

Mesri tried to use the pilfered files to extort $6 million in bitcoin from the Time Warner Inc.-owned pay-TV service, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a news release. He worked from May to July to compromise multiple HBO employee accounts, and used those to break into the company's servers, the Justice Department said.

The leaks, which began in July, also included new full episodes of shows including "Ballers," "Insecure," "Room 104" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The hacker, who identified himself as "Mr. Smith," publicized the breach by sending emails to news reporters that included links to the stolen information.

"American ingenuity and creativity is to be cultivated and celebrated -- not hacked, stolen, and held for ransom," acting Manhattan U.S. Atty. Joon H. Kim said in a statement, which employed a catchphrase from "Game of Thrones." "For hackers who test our resolve in protecting our intellectual property -- even those hiding behind keyboards in countries far away -- eventually, winter will come."

The hack revived fears of Hollywood's vulnerability to cyberattacks, coming less than three years after a hack of Sony Pictures and amid other attacks and threats against companies including Netflix and Walt Disney Co.

The HBO hack is another cyberattack on Hollywood by people allegedly connected to a foreign government. U.S. officials blamed the North Korean government for the 2014 Sony cyberattack, which crippled the Culver City studio's computer systems and resulted in embarrassing emails from executives going public. The hackers demanded Sony Pictures cancel the release of the satirical movie "The Interview," about a fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Piracy has long represented a scourge for entertainment companies, and "Game of Thrones" has been one of the most popular targets in recent years because of its dedicated following. The show's most recent season finale drew 12.1 million viewers, a record for the big-budget fantasy program.

The charges against Mesri filed by the U.S. attorney's office include one count of wire fraud, one count of computer hacking, three counts of threatening to impair the confidentiality of information and one count of aggravated identity theft.

Mesri has not been arrested. He could not be reached for comment.

According to the indictment, Mesri has worked for the Iranian military to hack military targets, nuclear software systems and Israeli infrastructure. He allegedly was a member of a hacking group called the Turk Black Hat security team, defacing hundreds of websites under the name "Skote Vahshat." The indictment did not say the Iranian government was behind the HBO hack.

HBO said in July that it was working with law enforcement and independent cybersecurity experts to address the breach.

"The problem before us is unfortunately all too familiar in the world we now find ourselves a part of," HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler said in a memo to employees at the time.

HBO declined to comment Tuesday beyond a brief statement: "HBO has confirmed in the past that we were working with law enforcement from the early stages of the cyber incident. As far as the criminal case is concerned, we prefer to leave any comments to the U.S. attorney's office."

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

Twitter: @rfaughnder ___

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