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Mercenary hackers stole data that Exxon later cited in climate lawsuits -US prosecutors

Mercenary hackers stole data that Exxon later cited in climate lawsuits -US prosecutors
Signage is displayed at an Exxon Mobil Corp. gas station in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Exxon is scheduled to released earnings figures on May 1. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON, Oct 12 (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors say an Israeli private investigator used hackers to steal emails from climate activists who were campaigning against American energy giant Exxon Mobil Corp XOM.N.

By Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing

In a sentencing memo filed on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, for the Southern District of New York, said Exxon’s lawyers cited media articles based on the stolen emails to parry investigations by U.S. state attorneys general.

Prosecutors stopped short of stating a connection between the Israeli private eye – former policeman Aviram Azari – and Exxon, and the memo did not identify any of his clients. Victims say that leaves a key question unanswered.

“While it’s satisfying to see Azari sentenced for these crimes committed many years ago, we would still love to know who paid him to target me and my climate activist and lawyer colleagues,” said Kert Davies, one of Azari’s victims and the director of investigations at the Center for Climate Integrity.

Exxon has previously denied having any connection to the Israeli or his hacking campaign.

The oil company, which has come under increased scrutiny following its just-announced $60 billion deal to buy competitor Pioneer Natural Resources PXD.N, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Exxon’s lawyers in the case, Paul Weiss, also did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Seven years ago, attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts were probing Exxon for documents and other evidence showing the company had hidden its knowledge concerning the impact of fossil fuel usage on climate change. A cohort of environmental activists backed the investigations and helped organize a media campaign dubbed #ExxonKnew.

The Massachusetts investigation eventually turned into a lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Exxon pushed back, filing lawsuits that cited press articles, which suggested the activists were using underhanded tactics. Thursday’s filing is the first time that Azari’s hacking activities have been directly connected to those media leaks, which showcased private email exchanges and other non-public communications.

Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, another of Azari’s victims, said the only common thread between all the victims was “advocacy to hold Exxon Mobil accountable for lying.”

Williams’ memo was filed ahead of next week’s expected sentencing of Azari, who pleaded guilty last year to hiring mercenary hackers to target his clients’ enemies.

Williams alleged that Azari, who has been in U.S. custody since 2019, made an average of just under $1 million a year by hiring digital spies to carry out “a massive computer hacking campaign that targeted thousands of victims worldwide.”

Azari’s lawyer, Barry Zone, did no immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

Azari was the subject of an investigation published last year by Reuters that revealed how he and other private eyes have used mercenary hackers to help wealthy clients gain an advantage in court battles.

“Azari facilitated the hacking scheme by directing groups of hackers, including a particular group of individuals based in India, to target specific victims,’” prosecutors wrote.

The use of cyber mercenaries to tamper with the justice system is receiving increasing attention both in the United States and abroad. Earlier this year French and British government cyber watchdogs warned that mercenary hackers were targeting law firms in their respective countries in order to win cases.

U.S. authorities say Azari also targeted critics of the now-defunct payment firm Wirecard, as well as an unnamed Mexican political party, and “government officials from various African countries.”

(Reporting by Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing; Editing by Leslie Adler and Richard Chang)

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