'Guccifer' hacker stole Downton plot but didn't spill the beans

Super-hacker broke into Julian Fellowes' email account of stealing Tina Brown's address book

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:27 ON Wed 8 Jan 2014
Charles Laurence

IS THERE honour among hackers? The latest story from America of outrageous invasion into what would once have been considered private space suggests there might be.

‘Guccifer’ is an anonymous but prolific hacker, perhaps even a collective, who has been feeding scandal sites, in particular The Smoking Gun. His coups have included drawings of his dog by former President ‘Dubya’ Bush and doodles by Bill Clinton.

But in its latest post, The Smoking Gun reveals that ‘Guccifer’ knew the secrets of the final episode of the fourth season of the television drama Downton Abbey, and did not tell a soul. In the States, the latest season started only on Sunday (where it broke all records for a PBS drama, drawing 10.2 million viewers, more even than watched in Britain in September) and we still await the outcome with bated breath.

It is one thing to know that Google tracks your every internet search for its corporate customers, and the National Security Agency with its buddies at GCHQ follows your every call and e-mail abroad.

It is one thing to know that there are thieves with computers ceaselessly attempting to buy beer with your credit card and steal your savings from the bank.

But it is quite another to have your Sunday night viewing pleasure spoiled. That would be going too far. ‘Guccifer’ knew when to stop. He can keep a secret.

How ‘Guccifer’ breached the walls of Downton Abbey is a story in its own right. According to the files he has dumped on The Smoking Gun in what appears to be an act of confession or a boast, he hacked into the BTinternet email account of the show’s creator Julian, Lord Fellowes, and found the script. This was six months before it aired in the UK.

‘Guccifer’ had found Fellowes in an address book he managed to steal from an assistant to the celebrated British-born editrix, Tina Brown, formerly of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The Daily Beast. After 30 years of schmoozing with the rich and famous, Brown's little black book was a treasure trove of contacts.

Having hacked into the assistant's Yahoo account and found the address book, he exported nearly 900 names and corresponding e-mail addresses into an Excel spreadsheet and set about reviewing the list for possible new targets - "a standard Guccifer MO", says The Smoking Gun.

“While the hacker routinely copies an address book following a break-in, some contact lists - like those of Brown, Powell [Colin, former Secretary of State], and former White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal - have proven to be target-rich environments for Guccifer to exploit."

Armed with Brown’s contact list, Guccifer hacked into the email accounts - mostly AOL or Earthlink - of, among others, the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell, British actor Rupert Everett and  BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. TSG reports that he was also researching Martin Amis "in preparation for an assault on the author’s Yahoo account”.

The hacker used basic Wikipedia information about his targets as well as lists of popular pet names to guess passwords, and protected his own identity with proxy servers, fake IP addresses and anonymising software. 

‘Guccifer’ sounds more like a one-man News of the World than one of the cloak-and-dagger Big Brother spooks who have recently dominated the electronic spying news.

He has targeted the Washington establishment and Hollywood celebrities with equal abandon. He has the private phone numbers and e-mails for Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio. He has raided, and vandalised, the websites and e-mails of generals, politicians, White House aides and the head of the Romanian Intelligence Service, George-Cristian Maior.

Nobody seems quite sure why.

“Guccifer wrote of turning over his archive ‘just in case I am busted,’ but he has not offered a rationale for the crime spree detailed in those documents,” says The Smoking Gun. “While referring to his distaste for the 'new UK-USA empire', the hacker claims to be operating from 'the cloud of Infinite Justice'. Still, it is hard not to view many of his break-ins as crimes of opportunity. Hacking for hacking’s sake, with a simple goal of disruption, havoc and embarrassment.”

While Guccifer's motive remains a mystery, there was never any doubt over the motive for a raid on government files which electrified America more than 40 years ago and returned to the headlines this week. 

In 1971, a group of anti-Vietnam protesters broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole documents that proved, scandalously, that J Edgar Hoover’s FBI was digging up dirt and organising disruption of the 'New Left' and the anti-war movement.

Details of their exploits have been revealed for the first time in a book, The Burglary, by Betty Medsger, a Washington Post journalist who reported the original break-in. A professor of physics was the brains behind the raid, it turns out, and a professor of religious studies was on his team.  

But the key recruit was a committed anti-war campaigner driving a taxi for a living. He had learned how to pick locks.

On the night of the raid, they all met in a hotel room. They picked the locks to the FBI office and carried out files that would help change the course of American policy.

They spread the files on tables in a rented farmhouse to read through them, highlighters in hand, before mailing them to journalists. The revelations inspired the Church Committee in the Senate which investigated intelligence agency abuses, and led to new controls.

The FBI, as enraged then as now, fielded a team of 200 to exact revenge. They never found them. The professor of physics, William C Davidon, died last November.

“My response to [Edward] Snowden”, says Keith Forsyth, the lock-picker, all these years later, “was ‘here we go again’.”

Forsyth worked with a skeleton key, not a computer key. Everything else is more of the same, only more of it. ·