A 29-year-old Illinois man pleaded guilty on Tuesday (27 September) to breaking into the email accounts of multiple high-profile female celebrities and leaking their nude photos online. Edward Majerczyk pleaded guilty in federal court in Chicago to one felony count of unauthorised access to a protected computer to obtain information, according to court documents.
Majerczyk was accused of executing a phishing scheme to obtain illegal access to hundreds of iCloud and Gmail accounts, including at least 30 accounts that belonged to celebrities, between November 2013 and August 2014. Some of the celebrities affected in the hack included Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, model Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst and US soccer player Hope Solo, many of whom have already publicly addressed the leak and online dissemination of the nude photos in interviews.
The defendant reportedly told US District Judge Charles Kocoras that he targeted the celebrities and looked for personal information and "sensitive images" to download after learning how to pull off the scheme "from another individual" on the internet, the Chicago Tribune reports. His attorney, Thomas Needham, told the judge that there was no evidence "of any effort by my client to sell or disseminate" any images.
When the judge asked if the hack was essentially "for his own personal satisfaction and enjoyment", Needham replied: "Yes, your honour."
Revealing over 500 photos stolen from the celebrities' iCloud accounts, many of which contained nudity, the so-called 'Celebgate' or 'Fappening' leak saw many of the images posted onto the 4chan forum and later made their way onto Reddit and Imgur.
"Hacking of online accounts to steal personal information is not merely an intrusion of an individual's privacy but is a serious violation of federal law," US attorney Eileen M Decker said in a statement in July. "Defendant's conduct was a profound intrusion into the privacy of his victims and created vulnerabilities at multiple online service providers."
At a meeting with federal agents in September 2014, investigators said Hunger Games star Lawrence broke down and was "visibly shaken" by the hack.
"She became very distraught and I had to stop the interview at one point because of her emotional reaction to the information being discussed," an FBI agent said, according to court filings. "[Lawrence] stated she was having an anxiety attack."
In an interview with Vanity Fair the same year, Lawrence called the breach and subsequent leak a "sex crime".
"I was just so afraid. I didn't know how this would affect my career," Lawrence said. "Just because I'm a public figure, just because I'm an actress, does not mean that I asked for this. It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It's my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can't believe that we even live in that kind of world."
Reuters reports that assistant US attorney Joseph Fitzpatrick for the Northern District of Illinois said his office has agreed to seek a nine-month prison sentence for Majerczyk. His sentencing is scheduled for 10 January.
In March, 36-year-old Ryan Collins of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to a felony computer hacking charge and was charged with illegally obtaining access to over 100 iCloud and Gmail accounts.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US attorney's office in Los Angeles, told the Tribune that the investigation into who leaked the sensitive information and photos online is still ongoing.