A 19-year-old Los Angeles man pleaded guilty Monday to stealing and posting on the Internet sensitive information that might have allowed customers to pirate broadcasts from DirecTV, the nation's largest satellite-TV provider.
The case against Igor Serebryany is one of the few criminal prosecutions -- the first in Los Angeles -- under the U.S. Economic Espionage Act of 1996. Federal prosecutors have invoked the law in only about 30 cases, said Assistant U.S. Atty. James Spertus.
"Clearly, the theft of company documents is as much of a crime as stealing an automobile," said Robert Mercer, a spokesman for DirecTV, a unit of El Segundo-based Hughes Electronics Corp. DirecTV has 11 million subscribers.
"The protection of technology and trade secrets is of paramount importance to DirecTV," Mercer said.
Serebryany, a second-year student at the University of Chicago, was charged in January with stealing blueprints of DirecTV's latest P4 access-card technology, a credit-card-like device that prevents free access to digital TV signals. Documents about the technology were allegedly distributed by Serebryany to Internet sites catering to hackers, who were apparently unable to crack the code underpinning the technology.
Serebryany allegedly gained access to the information while working temporarily in the Los Angeles law offices of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, DirecTV's legal counsel in a trade dispute. The law firm had hired a document image company, whose employees included Serebryany's uncle.
TV-signal piracy has long been a concern for DirecTV and other pay-TV companies. DirecTV invested $25 million to develop its newest access card because three earlier versions were compromised by hackers.
Serebryany, whose parents live in Hollywood, plans to return to school, said Nina Marino, the Beverly Hills attorney representing the student.
"My client has taken full responsibility for his action," Marino said. "He has learned a life-altering lesson with permanent consequences to his future. He looks forward to moving on with his life and completing his college education."
A University of Chicago spokesman said it was not known whether the university would take action against Serebryany, who has yet to declare a major.
Originally charged with three felony counts of theft of trade secrets, Serebryany pleaded guilty to one count and faces up to 10 years in federal prison. He may be eligible for probation, Marino said.
Serebryany also faces about $148,000 in restitution. He is set to be sentenced Sept. 8 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.