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Accused celebrity hacker: 'I deeply apologize... it eats at me'

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Thu October 13, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's "probably one of the worst invasions of privacy," Christopher Chaney says
  • Chaney says he was not attempting to sell anything
  • He was charged with accessing and damaging protected computers, wiretapping, aggravated ID theft
  • Victims include Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, Christina Aguilera

Editor's note: For more on Christopher Chaney's apology, visit CNN affiliate WAWS/WTEV.

(CNN) -- The man accused of hacking celebrities' online accounts -- from which private images were ultimately posted on the Internet -- says he became "addicted" to the intrusion and "didn't know how to stop."

"I deeply apologize. I know what I did was probably one of the worst invasions of privacy someone could experience," Christopher Chaney told CNN affiliate WAWS/WTEV in Jacksonville, Florida, Wednesday.

"And these people don't have privacy to begin with. And I was in that little sliver of privacy they do have."

Federal authorities accuse the 35-year-old of hacking into accounts on computers and other devices belonging to more than 50 people, including movie stars Scarlett Johansson and Mila Kunis and singer Christina Aguilera.

Chaney was indicted on charges of accessing protected computers without authorization, damaging protected computers, wiretapping and aggravated identity theft, officials said.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Chaney was able to access nude photos of some of the celebrities and some of them were uploaded on the Internet," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said Wednesday.

A recently circulated nude photo of Johannsson is part of the investigation, he said.

Chaney allegedly "also took financial information, movie scripts and conversations that the celebrities believed to be private," Birotte told reporters.

The FBI's Los Angeles office said he was arrested as part of "Operation Hackerazzi," which looked into computer intrusions targeting individuals associated with the entertainment industry.

In the interview with WAWS/WTEV, Chaney said the hacking "started as curiosity and it turned into just being, you know, addicted to seeing the behind-the-scenes of what's going on with these people you see on the big screen every day."

"It just happened and snowballed," he said, adding that he wishes it had never begun.

Chaney said he felt "almost relieved months ago" when authorities seized his computer because "I didn't know how to stop doing it myself. I wasn't attempting to break into e-mails and get stuff to sell or purposely put it on the Internet. It just -- I don't know."

Authorities allege that Chaney distributed photos of the celebrities that he obtained illegally and offered them to various celebrity blog sites. Some of the illegally obtained files, including private photographs, were ultimately posted online "as a result of Chaney's alleged activities," authorities said in a statement.

"I've had like six months to think about it," Chaney said, "it eats at me... When you're doing it you're not thinking about what's going on with who you're doing it to."

Chaney allegedly was able to access passwords by monitoring social media and other online sites that the celebrities used, said Steven Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.

"You may have selected a password that's meaningful to you that you may disclose online with friends," Martinez said. "Your pet's name or whatever. That's a clue to a hacker, to start there."

The suspect used several aliases such as "trainreqsuckswhat," "anonygrrl," and "jaxjaguars911," authorities said in a news release.

Chaney also allegedly used public sources to mine data about his victims, which included both males and females, all associated with the entertainment industry, authorities said.

Authorities allege that once Chaney hacked into a celebrity's e-mail account, he would use the contact lists to find other celebrities' e-mail accounts. This allowed him to add new victims, authorities charge.

Chaney made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Florida, on Wednesday afternoon, and was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond with the conditions that he can't use any computer or other device with Internet access and he can't have any controlled substances or excessive use of alcohol, said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles.

Chaney's next court appearance will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday for an identity hearing in the same courthouse, Eimiller said.

Chaney has been indicted on nine counts of computer hacking for gain, eight counts of aggravated identify theft, and nine counts of illegal wiretapping, Birotte said.

If convicted of the 26 counts, Chaney would face a maximum of 121 years in federal prison, Birotte said. The aggravated identity theft charge alone carries a mandatory two-year prison sentence, he added.

Chaney allegedly set his victims' accounts to automatically forward their e-mails to his account, Birotte said. This allegedly allowed Chaney to continue to receive celebrities' e-mails even after a password was reset, authorities said.

Martinez said authorities coined the term "hackerazzi" to describe this kind of intrusion.

"The paparazzi is always chasing them down, and now you have a virtual way of doing it by looking at posts they put on social media sites," Martinez said.

In 2005, hackers logged into Paris Hilton's phone and stole photos of her, according to Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at the F-Secure computer security company. Those hackers reportedly were able to break into Hilton's phone by correctly guessing the not-so-secret answer to her security question, which was "tinkerbell," the name of her pet Chihuahua.

In August, rapper Kreayshawn wrote on her blog that her Twitter account was hacked when naked photos of her showed up there.

In March, Vanessa Hudgens of "High School Musical" underwent a similar ordeal after photos were reportedly stolen from her Gmail account.

And in December, police in Germany alleged two young men had used computer-hacking skills to gain access to the e-mail accounts and photos of more than 50 celebrities, according to Britain's The Telegraph, including the likes of Lady Gaga and Ke$ha.

In the wake of the latest celebrity hacking allegations, some have started to assume celebrity photo leaks are the newest front in the so-called "hacktivist" wars, waged by big-name hacking rings such as Anonymous and LulzSec. Those groups have claimed responsibility for taking down bank and government websites.

But security experts said connections between celebrity hackers and groups such as Anonymous are thin or nonexistent.

"It's obviously to gain media exposure, right?" said Kevin Mitnick, a hacker turned security consultant and author of "Ghost in the Wires." "It's like everyone is trying to one-up Anonymous and one-up LulzSec. So somehow celebrities are becoming a target."

CNN's Michael Martinez, Josh Levs, Carey Bodenheimer and John D. Sutter contributed to this report.

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