Department of Justice Abandoning Hacking Charges Against NOAA Employee
Last October, Sherry Chen was brought up on very serious hacking charges. The government alleged that in 2012, Chen had illegally accessed data from the National Inventory of Dams. The NID is an Army Corps of Engineers database which records information about the structural integrity, as well as other safety information, about all the 87,000 dams in the United States. Until relatively recently, parts of the database was publicly accessible.
The charges against Chen stemmed from her having sent files from the database to Jiao Yong, an employee of the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources. She had met Yong while on vacation with her family in 2012. Chen moved to the United States in 1992 and became a naturalized citizen, going onto become a respected member of her field of hydrology. One of the e-mails she exchanged with Yong would raise a red flag in any investigator’s mind though it is not particularly evidence-laden.
It was very glad to meet you in Beijing after so many years and impressed with your achievement and contribution to the nation in water resources development and management. […] I am back home now and have been looking for the dam-related information you are interested [in.]
The trouble with the government’s case, of course, is that Chen never sent anything the Chinese official could not have publicly gotten. Investigators seem to have been closing a logic loop of their own accord, by connecting an unidentified breach of the database to Chen without ever confirming that she, in fact, had broken the law or gone outside her job description. Perhaps this is why they’ve decided not to pursue the case, a rare occurrence in federal prosecutions since it takes a lot for them to get involved in the first place. On the surface, and given the e-mail discovery quoted above, it may have seemed to federal prosecutors like they had a grand slam on their hands, when all they had was a foul ball.
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Chinese Hacking a Continuing Concern for US Government
As Hacked recently reported, officials throughout the government are on the watch for Chinese penetrations. China has a staggering army of hackers dedicated to stealing everything from sensitive military records to trade secrets, business plans, blueprints, and business communications. China has a booming economy to support its growing world hegemony and has not been shy about wielding its economic power in order to gain political power in nations in need.
But in the case of Sherry Chen, a naturalized citizen who seems to cherish her job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, investigators were simply off-base. At the time of her arrest, the FBI said:
U.S. Attorney Stewart commended FBI and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Security who are jointly investigating this case. Assistant United States Attorney Dwight Keller is representing the government, in this case.
But now that the charges have been dropped (presumably because the government was sure it would lose the case), the FBI is saying nothing on the matter. No apology required? The damage done to the hydrologist’s career is virtually irreversible, and she is asking to be reinstated immediately. If NOAA grants her request, she will likely receive back-pay.
Featured image from Shutterstock.