Igor Serebryany, 19, a student at the University of Chicago, is accused of stealing confidential documents describing the smart card and encryption technology used in DirecTV's newest system.
When questioned by agents, the FBI said, Serebryany confessed to stealing documents from an outside document-copying service used by DirecTV's lawyers. If convicted on charges of theft of trade secrets, Serebryany faces up to 10 years in prison.
The case escalates what has been an ongoing legal and technological tussle between DirecTV, which continues to invent better ways of scrambling its signals, and the pirate community, which keeps finding ways to break them.
Most DirecTV subscribers use cards--provided by the company to legitimate customers--known as "Period 2" or "Period 3." Those systems, which decrypt encoded satellite signals based on the customer's subscription package, have been compromised by hackers.
In August 2002, DirecTV began distributing its fourth-generation smart card system, known as "Period 4." It represents the outcome of two years and $25 million worth of research and development.
According to an FBI affidavit, Serebryany worked part-time for a company called Uniscribe Professional Services that had a scanning center inside the Jones Day law firm. While there, Serebryany allegedly copied scanned files about Period 4 and sent them to the publisher of DSS-Hackers.com--asking that they be posted to the Net and without asking for any payment in return.
Serebryany could not be reached for comment Thursday.
According to an affidavit from FBI agent Tracy Marquis Kierce, the operator of the DSS hacking site said he was contacted by someone who identified himself or herself as "Igor" who supplied confidential Period 4 files.
Jones Day, one of the nation's larger law firms, is representing DirecTV in an unrelated civil case against NDS Americas, which developed the smart card technology.
Federal law prohibits anyone from copying or distributing confidential information "intending or knowing that the offense will injure any owner of that trade secret."