US Embassy London Local Employee Charged With Cyberstalking, Computer Hacking and Wire Fraud

Posted: 5:50 pm EDT
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We posted about this case last May (see State Dept Employee Posted at US Embassy London Faces ‘Sextortion’ Charges in Georgia). On August 19, the Justice Department announced that a locally employed staff member of US Embassy London,  Michael C. Ford, 36, was charged by indictment on Aug. 18, 2015, with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.  During the Daily Press Briefing of May 21st, the deputy spokesperson for the State Department informed the press that as of May 18th, this individual is no longer an embassy employee.

Via USDOJ | August 19, 2015:

WASHINGTON—A former locally-employed staff member of the U.S. Embassy in London was charged with engaging in a hacking and cyberstalking scheme in which, using stolen passwords, he obtained sexually explicit photographs and other personal information from victims’ e-mail and social media accounts, and threatened to share the photographs and personal information unless the victims ceded to certain demands.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia, Director Bill A. Miller of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and Special Agent in Charge J. Britt Johnson of the FBI’s Atlanta Division made the announcement.

Michael C. Ford, 36, was charged by indictment on Aug. 18, 2015, with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.

“According to the indictment, Ford hacked into e-mail accounts and extorted sexually explicit images from scores of victims,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “As these allegations highlight, predators use the Internet to target innocent victims. With the help of victims and our law enforcement partners, we will find those predators and hold them accountable.”

“Ford is alleged to have hacked into hundreds of e-mail accounts and tormented women across the country, by threatening to humiliate them unless they provided him with sexually explicit photos and videos,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn. “This sadistic conduct is all the more disturbing as Ford is alleged to have used the U.S. Embassy in London as a base for his cyberstalking campaign.”

“The Diplomatic Security Service is firmly committed to working with the Department of Justice and our other law enforcement partners to investigate allegations of crime and to bring those who commit these crimes to justice,” said Director Miller. “When a public servant in a position of trust is alleged to have committed a federal felony such as cybercrime, we vigorously investigate such claims.”

“While the allegations in this case are disturbing, it does illustrate the willingness and commitment of the FBI and its federal partners to aggressively follow those allegations wherever they take us,” said Special Agent in Charge Johnson. “The FBI will continue to provide significant resources and assets as we address complex cyber based investigations as seen here.”

According to allegations in the indictment, from January 2013 through May 2015, Ford, using various aliases that included “David Anderson” and “John Parsons,” engaged in a computer hacking and “sextortion” campaign to force numerous women to provide him with personal information and sexually explicit photographs and videos. To do so, Ford allegedly posed as a member of the fictitious “account deletion team” for a well-known e-mail service provider and sent notices to thousands of potential victims, including members of college sororities, warning them that their accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords.

Using the passwords collected from this phishing scheme, Ford allegedly hacked into hundreds of e-mail and social media accounts, stole sexually explicit photographs and personal identifying information (PII), and saved both the photographs and PII to his personal repository.

Ford then allegedly e-mailed the victims and threatened to release the photographs, which were attached to the e-mails, unless they obtained videos of “sexy girls” undressing in changing rooms at pools, gyms and clothing stores, and then sent the videos to him.

The indictment alleges that, when the victims either refused to comply or begged Ford to leave them alone, Ford responded with additional threats, including by reminding the victims that he knew where they lived. On several occasions, Ford allegedly followed through with his threats by sending sexually explicit photographs to victims’ family members and friends.

During the pendency of the alleged scheme, Ford was a civilian employee at the U.S. Embassy in London, England. He allegedly used his government-issued computer at the U.S. Embassy to conduct the phishing, hacking and cyberstalking activities.

The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and the FBI. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in London provided assistance. The case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Mona Sedky of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Trial Attorney Jamie Perry of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kamal Ghali of the Northern District of Georgia.

Anyone who believes that they are the victim of hacking, cyberstalking, or “sextortion” should contact law enforcement. Resources regarding hacking and other cybercrimes can be found at: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/cyber.

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State Dept says enhanced gag rules policy “more protective of employee speech” … no cry, cry, please!

Posted: 5:07 am EDT
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On August 17, we wrote about the State Department’s updated and enhanced rules for speaking, writing, teaching and media engagement covering all creatures big and small in Foggy Bottom, and the worldwide diplomatic universe (see State Dept Releases New 3 FAM 4170 aka: The “Stop The Next Peter Van Buren” Regulation).

The Daily Signal picked it up and got an official statement from deputy spox Mark Toner:

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner says the reason for the revisions is actually “to underscore that the Department encourages employees to engage with the public on matters related to the nation’s foreign relations.”

“The revised policies and procedures are more protective of employee speech as they establish a higher bar for limiting employees’ writing or speaking in their personal capacity, while also recognizing changing technologies in communication, such as social media,” Toner said in a statement to Daily Signal.

Toner also said the revisions do not change the procedures employees must follow before testifying in court or before Congress but “streamline the review process and also remind employees about existing rules regarding the disclosure of classified and other protected information.”

Streamline-apalooza! Here’s the laugh out loud cry from our favorite Veronica Mars:

“It’s an absolute overreach,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee told the Daily Signal:

“They should be able to talk to the media, they should be able to speak to Congress,” the Utah Republican said. “They have an absolute and total right to interact with Congress. There are whistleblower protections. That’s not a balanced approach to current and former employees’ rights.”

No kidding! We imagine that the State Department would say no one is preventing anyone from speaking to the media or Congress, they just want to know what you’re going to say first.  Before you say it. And hey, the agency will even help you clean it up, if needed.

When the ACLU defended Mr. Van Buren in 2012, it made the following argument:

The Supreme Court has long made clear that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern. A public employee’s First Amendment rights can be overcome only if the employee’s interest in the speech is outweighed by the govemment’s interest, as employer, in the orderly operation of the public workplace and the efficient delivery of public services by public employees. Pickering v. Bd. of Educ, 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). The government bears an even greater burden of justification when it prospectively restricts employees’ expression through a generally applicable statute or regulation. United States v. National Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454, 468 (1995) (“NTEU”).
[…]
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights even when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens. Garcetti
v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 430, 421 (2006).
[…]
Further, the State Department’s pre-publication review policy, as applied to blog posts and articles, raises serious constitutional questions. Through its policy, the State Department is prospectively restricting the speech of Mr. Van Buren as well as all present and future State Department employees. Where, as here, the restriction limits speech before it occurs, the Supreme Court has made clear that the government’s burden is especially heightened. NTE U, 513 U.S. at 468. The State Department must show that the interests of potential audiences and a vast group of present and future employees are outweighed by that expression’s necessary impact on the actual operation of government. Id. Courts have also required careful tailoring of prospective restrictions to ensure they do not sweep too broadly and that they actually address the identified harm. Id. at 475. Given this heightened standard, it is highly unlikely that the State Department could sustain its burden of demonstrating that its policy is constitutional.

In 2012, the ACLU presumably, used the 2009 version of 3 FAM 4170.  The updated version of 3 FAM 4170 issued July 27, 2015 is much tighter and has a much wider reach.  We don’t know how one could argue that this enhanced policy could better sustain constitutional challenge. But then, perhaps, State has a stable of constitutional lawyers at a ready. Besides, those folks outside  the building do not have legal standing to challenge these rules. So.

Oh, wait, perhaps, the State Department is also counting that no one will cross the fine line after Mr. Van Buren, and this policy functions, at its core, as a simple deterrent.

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Related item:

ACLU Van Buren Letter to U/S Management Patrick Kennedy dtd May 15, 2012