Federal prosecutors are recommending a prison term of 34 months for a former Lee-Davis High School teacher convicted of hacking the private digital accounts of celebrities and others.
Christopher Brannan, 31, pleaded guilty in October to unauthorized access of a protected computer and to aggravated identity theft before U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson who will sentence him March 1. Federal sentencing guidelines, not binding on the judge, call for a term of 34 to 40 months.
In a sentencing memorandum sent to Hudson on Thursday, Brian R. Hood, an assistant U.S. attorney, recommended a term of 34 months at the low end of the guideline range, the same sentence recommended in Brannan’s plea agreement and that Hudson indicated last October sounded reasonable.
Hood wrote that the crime was a serious one.
Brannan, reported the government, “Illegally hacked into his victims’ online accounts, invaded their privacy, and stole their personal information, including private and intimate photos and videos. This was anything but impulsive; rather, he engaged in this conduct thousands of times to gain access to hundreds of accounts over the course of 13 months.”
“His actions essentially amounted to breaking into hundreds of homes, searching through his victims’ closets and drawers, and stealing their personal belongings. The fact that the items he stole were private photographs and videos, as opposed to other tangible items, makes no difference. In many cases, these were nude and intimate photos that no one else was meant to see,” reported the prosecutor.
Hood added, “Notably, defendant either attempted to access, or successfully accessed, the account of (an underage female). He also targeted former students and teachers at the high school where he worked.”
Making matters worse, Brannan traded photographs and stolen login credentials with others. “Once he disseminated them, there was no stopping their spread and further circulation.”
Hood noted that Brannan has expressed remorse and apologized. “But he could not put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. The information and nude photographs he disseminated are now forever in circulation, and each time someone else views any one of those private photographs, the victim is re-victimized all over again.”
The government noted that Brannan has no other criminal record, had a stable upbringing surrounded by people who loved him, did not have a history of substance abuse, attended college and married, although he is now divorced.
The government is also not aware Brannan has any medical or psychological issues requiring treatment.
In pleading guilty, Brannan admitted that from Aug. 27, 2013, to Oct. 2, 2014, in Los Angeles County, Virginia and elsewhere, he gained unauthorized access to internet and email accounts, including Apple iCloud, Yahoo! and Facebook accounts.
He admitted using fraudulent email addresses designed to look like legitimate security accounts for Apple Inc. or from elsewhere. The misled victim would respond to the fake inquiry and provide account username and password information.
And he admitted accessing full Apple iCloud backups belonging to at least 18 victims that contained sensitive and private photographs and videos.
Brannan taught at Lee-Davis High School in Hanover five years ago but lost his job after the county learned he was the subject of an FBI investigation.
Authorities said he is one of five men involved in the “Celebgate” case in which hackers raided Apple iCloud accounts and obtained nude photographs and other private information from celebrities.
Victims included actress Jennifer Lawrence and model Kate Upton, according to media accounts. Four other men convicted of related crimes in other states have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 18 months.