Ex-NSA employee pleads guilty to taking classified info home

Nghia Hoang Pho

A former employee of an elite hacking group operated by the National Security Agency pleaded guilty on Friday to illegally taking classified documents, according to multiple media reports. He faces a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, along with a fine of $250,000.

Pho is the third person working for the NSA to be arrested for removing classified information since October of a year ago - with contractor Reality Winner and NSA employee Harold Martin III preceding him.

Pho is scheduled to be sentenced in April in USA district court in Baltimore.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said Pho started removing government documents in 2010, and continued doing it through March 2015.

"Pho also worked on highly classified, specialized projects", the statement said.

The case's details match reports of an NSA worker who had government hacking tools copied from his home computer by Kaspersky Lab software.

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The NSA has not commented on the report, but the Department of Homeland Security subsequently issued a directive banning all US agencies from using Kaspersky products. It is further alleged by USA government sources that Russian spies were able to get their hands on the top-secret code via the antivirus package, although Kaspersky denies any direct involvement. USA officials have said that Kaspersky Lab, by virtue of being located in Moscow, is subject to Russian surveillance. The material is reportedly believed to have been stolen from his computer by Russian hackers exploiting his personal antivirus software.

The court documents don't mention it, but Pho appears to be the NSA employee at the heart of the spying accusations swirling around the Moscow-based security firm Kaspersky Lab.

The intelligence official declined to comment on whether Pho knew the software he was using at home was vulnerable.

Both have pleaded not guilty, and are being held by authorities as they await trial for their alleged offenses.

The charges come on the heels of another government investigation in relation to a larger breach of NSA security, in which the NSA's hacking tools were released to the public a year ago by an unidentified group called the Shadow Brokers, Wired reported. Former NSA contractor Harold Martin was indicted in February on charges related to hoarding secrets at his home near agency headquarters in Ft.

In June another NSA contractor, Reality Winner, 25, was charged with leaking classified material about Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election to a news outlet. Most notably, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed a cache of classified material in 2013 exposing USA government surveillance programs.

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