L.A. County hacking investigation results in charges against a man in Nigeria. Now what?

L.A. County hacking investigation results in charges against a man in Nigeria. Now what?
A mural at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles authorities tracked down a suspected computer hacker who allegedly had access to private information stored by the county about 750,000 people. But getting the chance to prosecute him presents a new challenge.

The alleged hacker, Austin Kelvin Onaghinor, 37, is in Nigeria. Prosecutors say they're exploring all possibilities, including extradition, to have him face justice.


Getting hacking suspects into courtrooms has often been impossible in high-profile cases, especially when a government such as China, Russia or Iran could have been involved in directing the attacks.

In cases where a hack originates overseas, U.S. authorities need the cooperation of another country, said Michael Gold, an attorney who co-chairs cybersecurity cases at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell.

"But that cooperation has been at best episodic," Gold said.

It's easier on the "retail level," where thieves operate independently or in loose networks solely for financial gain, said Los Angeles Deputy District Atty. Donn Hoffman. The Los Angeles County incident from May falls into this category. Potentially breached were sensitive financial and health records that could have fetched the hacker thousands of dollars in the underground market.

Becoming adept at working with other countries on hacking cases could become an important deterrent for U.S. prosecutors that forces criminals  elsewhere. And as cyberattacks escalate in severity and prominence, follow-through on prosecutions could become more closely tracked.

"We are taking steps to bring him back here," Hoffman said of Onaghinor, declining to provide specifics. "I am hopeful, but definitely optimistic. No country likes fraud and ripping people off."

The county has had some success with overseas hacks. Recently, authorities identified suspects in the United Arab Emirates who attacked county computer systems. Though they weren't extradited, they were imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates.

Onaghinor allegedly sent about 1,000 Los Angeles county employees across several departments an email that asked them to update their account information. Clicking a link took workers to a pop-up window that resembled an Outlook email online log-in page. Hoffman described it as quite convincing.

More than 100 employees entered their account credentials on the fraudulent page, which transmitted them to the hacker. Officials don't have evidence that confidential information made accessible in the incident was misused.

Investigators followed the digital trail, using an analysis of network traffic, data from Internet service providers and other groups to identify Onaghinor.

"Even crooks who have good operational security get sloppy or occasionally make mistakes," Hoffman said. "With persistence and digging, you start to gather evidence. If you keep on following the trail, eventually you get to the end of it."

Even crooks who have good operational security get sloppy or occasionally make mistakes.

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Onaghinor is charged with nine felony counts, including unauthorized computer access and using the credentials of eight county employees.

The data breach was kept secret from May until last week as authorities worked to track down the suspect.

Upfront Ventures promotes from within

Los Angeles' largest venture capital firm has named Kevin Zhang as its newest partner. Zhang's promotion at Upfront Ventures comes after about four years at the firm, where he started as an associate.


Zhang plans to focus on investing in virtual and augmented reality technologies, video games, food and agriculture, healthcare and Internet-connected devices. He has helped Upfront invest in virtual reality live-streaming service Vreal, indoor gardening kit Grove, tea infuser maker Teforia and portable gluten tester maker Nima.

Of interest to Zhang within healthcare are mobile apps that act as an intermediary between caregivers and patients, particularly if they relate to mental health issues. He also said he's keeping an eye out for companies developing diagnostic tools that slim down hardware normally found in hospitals, making them affordable even in homes.

In the agriculture industry, Zhang said he's eyeing technologies aimed at reducing food waste and increasing food safety.

Zhang studied biology at Harvard University and expected to become a doctor or medical researcher. But after college, he found himself enjoying work at a start-up that analyzed insurance claims. He then went into consulting before landing at Upfront. The people in science, medicine and technology he met along the way — more so than his coursework — have been crucial in vetting ideas from entrepreneurs, he said.

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Culver City-based virtual reality game maker Survivos has raised $50 million from investors including film studio MGM, according to Reuters.

Hollywood is questioning Facebook's plan to pay for the streaming rights to TV shows, movies and other videos because some in the industry deem the social media service as unhip, according to Hollywood Reporter.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit against Honest Co. that questioned whether its products are indeed organic, but an industry group says it will appeal the ruling, according to Forbes.

Soylent has resumed shipping its meal-replacement powder after removing a substance that inadvertently sickened some consumers, according to Bloomberg.

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Twitter: @peard33