Two environmental activists targeted by a hacking network say the public is the real victim

NEW YORK — Two environmental activists told a federal judge Thursday that the public was the real victim of a global computer hacking campaign that targeted those battling big oil companies to get the truth about global warming out.

A climate scientist and the director of a fund that creates initiatives to tackle climate change spoke at the sentencing of an Israeli man who prosecutors say enabled the hacking of thousands of individuals and entities around the world.

Aviram Azari, 52, from Kiryat Yam, Israel, was sentenced to six years and eight months in prison for his role in a global computer hacking network that authorities say targeted environmental activists, companies and individuals.

“I was the target, but the general public was the intended victim,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Our job is to tell the world the truth about a world on fire” and who “lit the flame,” said Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

In a press release, prosecutors say Azari owned an Israeli intelligence company from November 2014 to September 2019 and made $4.8 million after clients hired him to manage “projects” that were in reality hacking campaigns targeting climate change activists, individuals and financial companies.

Some hacked documents were leaked to journalists, resulting in articles related to investigations by attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts into what Exxon Mobile Corp. knew about climate change and possible misstatements the company made about what it knew about the threat, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said the theft of victims’ identities and personal information led some of them to describe a “psychological attack” that left them with “anxiety, paranoia, depression, insomnia and anxiety” and a sense that their personal safety was at risk.

Wasserman said he was “shocked and appalled” by the invasion of his personal and professional life.

“I found myself whispering in my own home,” he said.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Frumhoff, who also teaches at Harvard University.

He said the online invasion had a “completely damaging, chilling effect on our work”.

Azari was sentenced after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit computer hacking, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He has been in custody since his arrest in September 2019 while traveling to the US from abroad.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Juliana Murray told the judge that Azari’s victims, including those who worked for public interest groups and climate change advocates, were “carefully chosen” to interrupt their work.

When he spoke, Azari apologized to his victims, said he accepted full responsibility for his crimes and vowed “never to repeat it again.”

Frumhoff said he hoped the investigation would continue so prosecutors can reveal who paid Azari “to carry out these attacks.”

After he was sentenced, Azari was given another chance to speak and said he listened as the victims spoke during the proceedings.

He predicted that “a day will come” when he would be able to speak more about his crimes. Until then, he added, he asked for forgiveness from his victims.

“You don’t know everything,” he said.