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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Iran-based hacker charged with trying to extort HBO

An indictment filed on Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan accuses Behzad Mesri of hacking into the cable network's computer system in New York

People watching the seventh season premiere of US TV show 'Game of Thrones' at the Mayakovskaya metro station in Moscow. AFP
People watching the seventh season premiere of US TV show 'Game of Thrones' at the Mayakovskaya metro station in Moscow. AFP

An Iran-based hacker plotted to extort HBO out of Dh22 million by threatening to release stolen episodes and scripts of hit shows, such as Game of Thrones, at one point taunting the network with a twist on a catchphrase from the series: "Winter is coming. HBO is falling."

An indictment filed on Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan accuses Behzad Mesri of hacking into the cable network's computer system in New York. It says he stole unaired episodes from shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Deuce, story plot summaries and scripts for Game of Thrones and confidential cast and crew contact lists.

The hacker also stole internal HBO financial and strategic documents, and among them were home addresses and phone numbers of Game of Thrones stars.

Mesri, 29, used the alias "Skote Vahshat," earlier this year infiltrated computer accounts of HBO employees authorised to remotely access the network's servers, the indictment says. In July, he emailed HBO executives in New York providing evidence of the hack and demanding $5.5 million in digital currency, a figure later raised to $6 million, it says. Included was an image of Game of Thrones Night King character, leader of an army of zombies, with the words, "Good luck HBO."

After HBO apparently refused to pay, Mesri began leaking portions of the stolen material on websites he controlled, the indictment says. One of the leaks was an unaired episode of a new HBO comedy called Barry on which he superimposed an opening credit showing the Night King and the "HBO is falling" threat, according to the indictment.

In a statement on Tuesday, HBO said it is working with law enforcement but declined further comment.

It's also not clear how he came to do hacking work for Iran's military, which could have been as part of compulsory military service, Anderson said.

Although Mesri is not in custody, prosecutors decided to publicly charge him and put him on the FBI's most-wanted list to send a message to outlaw hackers that US law enforcement has the means to identify, track and get them arrested if they travel to countries where the United States has better relations, acting US lawyer Joon Kim said.

The US has neither formal diplomatic relations nor an extradition treaty with Iran, meaning the US can't request Mesri's extradition. Likewise, if he travels internationally, he could be arrested and sent to the US to face charges.

"Today, winter has come for Behzad Mesri," Kim said. "He will forever be looking over his shoulder. And if he isn't, he should be."

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