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FBI: CMU student charged with selling malware on Darkode

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Linked In profile picture of Morgan Culbertson, local suspect in cyber sting.

A fresh-faced college student who once designed a mobile app to bring Pittsburghers together slipped from his prestigious Carnegie Mellon University classrooms into the shadows of the Web, where he sold a program that put thieves inside people’s pockets, federal authorities said Wednesday.

Morgan Culbertson, 20, a CMU student and intern at a Silicon Valley cybersecurity firm, designed a program called “Dendroid” that allowed users to take over someone’s Android phone, snoop through text messages and snap photos without the phone owner’s knowing, said David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania.

“He went online by a screen name known as ‘Android,’ and for $300 you could buy his subscription where you could steal basically all aspects of (someone’s) cellphone,” Hickton said. “…You also could, as advertised, buy this code so you could do it yourself for $65,000. This was brazenly and openly advertised.”

Culbertson was charged Wednesday by federal authorities in Pittsburgh with conspiring to send malicious code and designing “Dendroid,” which was allegedly offered for sale on Darkode, a private, online forum that FBI agents said criminals used to share malware and other devices for computer crimes.

Culbertson could not be reached. His lawyer, Thomas Farrell, did not return a call from the Tribune-Review. No one answered the door at his parents’ Churchill home. His father, Robert F. Culbertson III, is a former CMU professor of entrepreneurship. His mother, Pamela, has served as a volunteer at the Churchill public gardens.

The federal charges prompted the Silicon Valley computer security company FireEye to suspend Culbertson’s internship “pending an internal review of his activities,” said company spokesman Kyrk Storer.

Culbertson’s work designing applications for Android operating systems dates to his days at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, where he was a member of the class of 2013, according to articles posted on the school’s website.

During his senior year, Culbertson designed and released “Atomic Lock,” an application that allowed Android users to create custom gestures to unlock their phones, according to a news bulletin from the school.

That same year, Culbertson took part in Steel City Codefest, a 24-hour coding marathon at Google’s Bakery Square office, where coders created applications meant to promote civic engagement, the news bulletin said. Culbertson’s application, PGH SMS, used a person’s location to help them join events near them. It drew the attention of Andrew Moore, a former Google executive and dean of CMU’s School of Computer Sciences, according to the bulletin.

Moore and the head of computer sciences at Winchester Thurston didn’t respond to calls and emails.

FBI agents said Culbertson posted advertisements for Dendroid on Darkode. The FBI took down the site Tuesday.

“I don’t think anywhere is immune to … the potential to be hacked or to have hackers in our community,” Scott Smith, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh field office, told the Tribune-Review.

Culbertson has not been arrested or taken into custody, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jimmy Kitchen said.

“Culbertson has an attorney, he’s been charged, and he will be appearing in court to answer those charges,” Kitchen said.

Trib Total Media reporters Patrick Varine and Kelsey Shea contributed. Mike Wereschagin and Andrew Conte are members of the Trib Total Media investigations team. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or [email protected]. Reach Conte at 412-320-7835 [email protected]

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