A former US Navy sysadmin who worked in an aircraft carrier's nuclear reactor department has been charged with hacking into government networks using the USN's own computers.
Prosecutors have alleged that Nicholas Paul Knight, 27, of Chantilly, Virginia, and his co-accused, 20-year-old Daniel Trenton of Salem, Illinois, were leading members of a blackhat group called Team Digi7al.
Court papers seen by The Register describe Team Digi7al as a "criminal association organised to hack protected computers, steal sensitive and private information, make unauthorised public disclosures of that stolen... information and commit various other crimes related to its hacking activities".
Knight, from Virginia, is said to have learned how to to be a hacker at the age of 16 before enlisting in the US Navy, ending up as a systems administrator in the nuclear reactor department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
It is alleged that he used Navy computers to carry out "unlawful Team Digi7al activities" and prosecutors said he was discharged after being caught trying to hack a naval database whilst at sea.
Krueger is accused of "performing much of the technical hacking work for Team Digi7al. He lives in Salem, Illinois, and studied network administration at a local college. He is also alleged to have operated Team Digi7al's Twitter account.
The US Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma said that "if convicted, Knight and Krueger face a maximum penalty of five years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine, in addition to paying restitution to the victims of the crime".
Three other Team Digi7al hackers have been identified by the authorities, but they are not currently facing trial.
Prosecutors said: "Knight called himself a 'nuclear black hat' who fought for the people of the United States, not the government."
According to the prosecution, Krueger said he hacked naval computers "out of boredom", while another unnamed hacker said he broke into systems because it was "fun, and we can".
The pair are said to have used a number of pseudonyms. Knight is alleged to have gone under names like Interia, Logic and Solo while his co-accused is accused of modestly calling himself Thor, Chronus, Gambit or Orunu.
Their alleged targets include the USN's Navy-SWM database, containing private information about 220,000 USN sailors; the United States National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which provides mapping information to the military, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the government-run institution which built the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two.
Naval tech bods had to spend $514,000 to fix the problems caused by Team Digi7al's hack into the Navy's systems and even had to set up a call centre to help sailors who were affected by the attack.
Prosecutors said many of the hacks followed the same pattern. First, a team member scanned websites for security holes, taking "a particular interest in hacking government websites including military, educational, intelligence, homeland security and critical infrastructure".
Vulnerable targets would then be hit with a SQL code injection, prosecutors suggested, before the stolen data was uploaded to the cloud and links to the material published on Twitter.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the charges were contained in a document known as a criminal information, which usually indicates the defendants are going to plead guilty.
A trial date has not been set.
Team Digi7al, whoever they turn out to be, had a modest presence on Twitter. Its account is emblazoned with the slogan "behind you, lurking" beneath a logo which looks curiously corporate. ®