A 36-year-old Pennsylvania man has admitted to hacking female celebrities’ phones and email accounts to steal nude photographs and videos, federal prosecutors say.
Ryan Collins will plead guilty to unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information in federal court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said Tuesday in a press release.
The case is connected to the 2014 scandal known as “Celebgate” or “The Fappening”, in which hundreds of nude photos and videos of celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and several others, were released onto photo-sharing sites, Reddit, 4-Chan and on social media.
“Today, people store important private information in their online accounts and in their digital devices,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. “Lawless unauthorized access to such private information is a criminal offense. My Office remains committed to protecting sensitive and personal information from the malicious actions of sophisticated hackers and cyber criminals.”
Prosecutors said in court documents that Ryan Collins used a phishing scheme to obtain usernames and passwords from the victims and then illegally accessed their accounts using that information.
Prosecutors said Collins sent emails to the victims that appeared to either be from Apple or Google. In the emails, Collins asked the victims to give their usernames and passwords. When the victims responded with that information, Collins was able to log into their email accounts.
“After illegally accessing the e-mail accounts, Collins obtained personal information including nude photographs and videos, according to his plea agreement,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. “In some instances, Collins would use a software program to download the entire contents of the victims’ Apple iCloud backups.”
Collins was able to access 50 iCloud accounts and 72 Gmail accounts using the phishing scheme,according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The hacks occurred between November 2012 and September 2014.
Many of the accounts belonged to women who are part of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, prosecutors said.
“By illegally accessing intimate details of his victims’ personal lives, Mr. Collins violated their privacy and left many to contend with lasting emotional distress, embarrassment and feelings of insecurity,” David Bowdich, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office,said in a statement. “We continue to see both celebrities and victims from all walks of life suffer the consequences of this crime and strongly encourage users of Internet-connected devices to strengthen passwords and to be skeptical when replying to emails asking for personal information.”
Ryan Collins is married and has two children, according to his Facebook page. He is originally from Hershey, Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Lancaster.
He graduated from James Madison University in 2003 with a degree in integrated science and technology. He works as a creative project manager for the eCommerce marketing company Listrak in Lancaster, his Linkedin profile says.
He has previously worked as an art director and webmaster, and as a personal chef.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has not connected Collins to the actual leak of the photos onto the Internet.
“The charge against Collins stems from the investigation into the leaks of photographs of numerous female celebrities in September 2014 known as “Celebgate,’” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a press release. “However, investigators have not uncovered any evidence linking Collins to the actual leaks or that Collins shared or uploaded the information he obtained.”
Prosecutors have not said which celebrities were targeted by Collins. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan White told Buzzfeed News investigators used IP addresses to find Collins in September 2014, only weeks after the photos appeared online.
Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the leak, has been outspoken about the damage it caused.“It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime,””she told the magazine. “It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”
Along with Lawrence, other victims included Anna Kendrick, Lea Michelle, Cara Delevingne, Victoria Justice, McKayla Maroney, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kaley Cuoco, Jessica Brown Findlay and Abigail Spencer.
Collins faces a maximum of five years in prison when he is sentenced. Prosecutors will recommend a sentence of 18 months, according to the plea agreement.
The judge in the case will make a final decision on sentencing. Collinss also faces up to $250,000 in fines and supervised release.
According to court documents, the stolen photos, videos and personal information has been valued at more than $5,000. He could also be ordered to pay restitution.