He worked on "highly classified, specialized projects and had access to government computer systems, programs, and information, including classified information", according to the agreement. But he had installed on his home computer antivirus software made by Kaspersky Lab, a top Russian software company, and Russian hackers are believed to have exploited the software to steal the documents, the officials said.
The incident was a key reason why the United States government earlier this year announced a ban on use of Kaspersky anti- virus software on government computers, warning that the Moscow-based company has suspect links to Russian intelligence. But the breach violated protocols and conditions for holding a security clearance.
According to the charges against Pho, he habitually took home both digital and paper files, including ones marked Top Secret, though he never received authorization to do so.
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The guilty plea was announced by Stephen Schenning, acting USA attorney for the District of Maryland; Dana Boente, acting assistant attorney general for national security; and Gordon Johnson, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore Field Office.
It is not clear whether anyone at Kaspersky Lab was aware of the document theft.
The hunt quickly led to Pho, who was removed from his position in 2015.
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In the meantime, Kaspersky Lab is denying media reports that it helped Russian spies steal any classified NSA data.
"We deleted those files", the report said, because they were not needed to improve customer security and because of concerns regarding the handling of potentially classified materials.
A federal grand jury indicted former NSA contractor Harold Martin in February on charges alleging he spent up to 20 years stealing up to 50 terabytes of highly sensitive government material from the US intelligence community, which were hoarded at his home. Martin was indicted in February on charges of violating the Espionage Act. The trove was published by a mysterious group calling itself the Shadow Brokers.
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Tools developed by the NSA have been used to carry out massive cyber attacks, including the WannaCry ransomware attack that spread to more than one million computers earlier this year. Investigators suspect the Russian government is behind that release but have not obtained proof. Among the details of the case shrouded in mystery is the date he was charged. He is not being held by authorities as he awaits his sentencing, which is scheduled for April 6, 2018, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.