Feds nab top exec on allegations he hacked a competitor, stole info… about school lunches?!

The cutthroat world of children's food in the spotlight

After a year-long investigation, a top California exec has been arrested by the FBI for allegedly hacking into a competitor's website and stealing their customer data in an effort to ruin their business.

There is an unusual twist, however: this isn't the high-stakes world of big tech or high finance, but American school lunches.

Chief financial officer of Choicelunch, Keith Wesley Cosbey, 40, was collared last month over claims that he illegally grabbed details from competitor The LunchMaster on what precisely youngsters across the San Francisco Bay Area like to eat and are allergic to.

He has been charged with unlawful computer access and fraud, and identity theft. If found guilty, Cosbey faces up to three years behind bars.

According to the criminal complaint against him, filed in San Mateo County, Cosbey stole data on hundreds of students, and then sent it anonymously to the local government department that oversees the school lunch program in an apparent effort to undermine his competitor.

The approach backfired, though, when the California Department of Education contacted The LunchMaster about the data leak, and the company searched its access logs, it is claimed. It apparently tracked the intrusion down to an IP address associated with Danville, California – where Choicelunch is headquartered.

The LunchMaster then contacted the FBI, the San Francisco Chronicle reported today, which carried out an investigated before nabbing Cosbey last month. He is currently out on $125,000 bail, and is due to appear in court on May 22. The news of his arrest emerged after The LunchMaster was given permission to notify the families of the students whose data has been accessed.

Amazingly, this is not the only time that the two companies have been at loggerheads. Back in 2013, Choicelunch sued The LunchMaster for copyright infringement and unfair competition, claiming the biz copied its website design and software.

Food for thought

The complaint in that case [PDF] alleged Choicelunch's online ordering form, where customers are able to select specific days from a calendar view and then click on available food options, was ripped off by The LunchMaster in a website redesign based entirely on their approach.

Choicelunch then sent a DMCA copyright takedown notice to The LunchMaster's hosting company – Amazon Web Services – and, amazingly, Amazon pulled the site, prompting The LunchMaster to set up a replacement website, which Choicelunch then also tried to bring down. Amazon then informed Choicelunch it would enforce a permanent injunction against The LunchMaster if Choicelunch filed a federal complaint. And so Choicelunch did.

Fortunately for website owners, the case landed in front of tech-savvy Judge William Alsup, who made it plain he wasn't happy about people using copyright laws on web designs to tear down someone's online operation.

Judge Alsup refused [PDF] an injunction to take down The LunchMaster's replacement website (now hosted by Digital Ocean) and ordered Choicelunch to "withdraw any and all DMCA notices directed at defendant Nob Hill Catering" and ordered that it be "further prohibited from issuing further DMCA notices directed at defendant’s website." The two sides settled before it went to trial.

Of course the question you are likely asking is: how on Earth has the market for school lunches devolved in lawsuits, website takedowns, and hacking allegations?

And the answer is, of course, money. And procurement contracts worth millions of dollars. School districts across the Bay Area sign school lunch contracts for a school year, and the market is quite flexible: there is a chance to grab a new contract every year, sparking fierce competition.

Often parents are able to login into the school lunch provider and select the meal they want for their child – which is great for schools that don't have to deal with the logistics of hundreds of daily meals but also means that parents are very aware and vocal about any problems.

Contractual issues

As just one example, a contract won by The LunchMaster over Choicelunch for Del Mar Union School District back in 2015 was ended after just two months and re-awarded to Choicelunch because The LunchMaster was having trouble filling orders in time.

Each meal is worth roughly $5 and there are hundreds of students at dozens of schools in each district, so the contracts are enormous and scale is everything. With all contracts potentially up for grabs every year, what you would imagine is a cosy world of food delivery to kids in schools has become a cutthroat business.

Enough, it is alleged, for one executive to hack the website of another in an effort to undermine them.

We have asked both Choicelunch and The LunchMaster for more details on the case and will update this article if they get back. ®

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