U.S. defense researcher bought pirated software from Russians, Chinese, DOJ says

The pirated software was used to design components for military helicopters, including the president's Marine One fleet

The former chief scientist at a Kentucky defense contractor has been sentenced to a year in prison for buying pirated software from Russian and Chinese hackers and using it to design components for military helicopters.

Wronald Best, 55, of Owensboro, Kentucky, purchased the modeling and design software, with a retail value of more than $2.3 million, for use at his job with MPD, a manufacturer of military and law enforcement equipment, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

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An investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit found that Best was one of the top customers for Crack99.com, a site that sells pirated software, in 2008 and 2009, the DOJ said.

Best told special agents that he used the software to conduct simulations on components MPD was designing for use in military helicopters, including the Black Hawk helicopter and the presidential helicopter fleet, commonly referred to as Marine One, the DOJ said. Other projects on which Best used cracked software included designing Patriot missile components, police radars and breath analysis equipment widely used by American police departments.

Best was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware for conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement.

The DOJ and investigators with HSI accused Best of encouraging Chinese national Xiang Li and a Russian hacker to pirate copies of defense modeling programs and other software.

Xiang Li and a partner sold cracked copies of software on websites including Crack99.com and Cad100.com between April 2008 and November 2010, according to court documents. Many of the software packages they sold had retail values of $10,000 or more.

Best communicated electronically with about 35 different computer code crackers and purchased more than 60 pirated software titles from Chinese and Russian sources, according to court documents. He paid more than $6,000 to obtain pirated software worth more than $2.3 million, the DOJ said.

Li pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to commit copyright infringement and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He's awaiting sentencing.

The software piracy conspiracy raised investigator concerns that sophisticated modeling software, some of which was on a U.S. restricted export list, was falling into the wrong hands, said John Kelleghan, special agent in charge at HSI Philadelphia. 

Best was working on sensitive government projects and "gets into cahoots with a Chinese national and Russian cybercriminals," Kelleghan said. U.S. agencies need to be able to trust their contracting partners, and Best "absolutely failed" in his security agreements with the government, he added.

HSI was tipped off to Li's operation by a software vendor, and the agency's investigation resulted in the notification of cracked software to several other vendors, Kelleghan said. Some of the software vendors "had no clue their software was getting cracked," he said.

The investigation may lead some software vendors to reexamine their anticopying security, Kelleghan said.

The DOJ had sought a three-year prison sentence for Best. Prosecutors argued that Best encouraged Li and the Russian hacker to crack copies of software for him.

Best held a secret U.S. government security clearance, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing document. Best "became the very epitome of a compromised individual known to those who posed an international threat to the United States," prosecutors wrote.

Best's lawyer, Edmund Lyons, argued that criminal copyright sentences were typically much shorter than the DOJ requested, with recent sentences averaging less than a year. Lyons wasn't immediately available for comment Monday.

The HSI investigation found that between April 2008 and June 2011, Li sold about 550 pirated software titles to about 325 customers located in more than 25 states and more than 60 foreign countries. The software, from about 200 vendors, had a retail value of more than $100 million, the DOJ said.

Between January 2010 and June 2011, undercover agents made a series of purchases of pirated software from Crack99.com. Undercover agents met Li in Saipan in June 2011. Li had agreed to travel from China to Saipan to deliver pirated software, design packaging, and 20 gigabytes of proprietary data obtained from the server of a U.S. software company to undercover agents posing as U.S. businessmen. Agents arrested Li during a meeting in Saipan.

Li is scheduled to be sentenced on May 3.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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