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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A computer hacker pleaded guilty to helping write malicious code that let him breach AT&T Inc servers and steal personal data belonging to 120,000 Apple Inc iPad subscribers, U.S. prosecutors said.
Daniel Spitler, 26, admitted to one count of conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to computers and one count of identity theft at a Thursday hearing before U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton in Newark, New Jersey federal court.
Spitler could face a 12- to 18-month prison term under federal sentencing guidelines, which a judge need not follow. The San Francisco resident is free on bail, and his sentencing is scheduled for September 28.
Prosecutors in January accused Spitler and codefendant Andrew Auernheimer, 25, of using an "account slurper" to conduct a "brute force" attack over five days last June to extract data about iPad users who used the Internet through AT&T's network.
According to prosecutors, Spitler admitted to being a member of Goatse Security, a group of "self-professed Internet 'trolls'" who try to disrupt online content and services.
They said Auernheimer was also affiliated with Goatse, and that creators of the account slurper leaked stolen email addresses and other data to the website Gawker.
Possible victims of the hacking included public figures such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, anchor Diane Sawyer of Walt Disney Co's ABC News, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, prosecutors said.
"Computer hackers are exacting an increasing toll on our society, damaging individuals and organizations to gain notoriety for themselves," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in New Jersey said in a statement. "Daniel Spitler's guilty plea is a timely reminder of the consequences of treating criminal activity as a competitive sport."
Susan Cassell, a lawyer representing Spitler, said any 26-year-old in her client's position "will be deeply saddened by the process, especially when his goal was to benefit the public by exploiting a security breach that, if left unaddressed, could have led to far more serious consequences."
Auernheimer is a Fayetteville, Arkansas, resident charged with the same crimes as Spitler. He was granted bail in February, and his case is pending.
Candace Hom, a federal public defender representing Auernheimer, was not immediately available for comment.
AT&T was Apple's partner in the United States to provide wireless service on the iPad. After the hacking, it shut off the feature that allowed email addresses to be obtained.
The case is U.S. v. Spitler, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey, No. 11-mj-04022.
Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington, D.C. and Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Phil Berlowitz