The FBI and the Justice Department are investigating whether St. Louis Cardinals front office personnel hacked into a network used by the Houston Astros.
From a legal standpoint, it appears that a crime has been committed and the FBI and Justice Department want to know who did it. Even Major League Baseball’s own statement refers to an “illegal breach” rather than some “alleged” crime.
However, from a baseball standpoint, the question now revolves around just how serious the crime was and whether the St. Louis Cardinals gained a competitive advantage by allegedly breaking into a Houston Astros database, or whether this is just the front office equivalent of stealing signs.
On the surface, there is evidence to suggest that this was just a simple breach carried out by low-level staffers aimed at embarrassing one of their former bosses. However, there is another report that suggests this was a more complicated cyberattack and that there are reasons to at least wonder if knowledge of the hack and possession of the stolen information went further up the chain of command.
The stealing signs theory.
On the one hand, the FBI investigation reportedly traced the hack to a home used by multiple members of the Cardinals front office, according to Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times. That house was located in Jupiter, Florida, where the Cardinals conduct spring training. Since highly-compensated, upper-level executives are unlikely to be sharing a house with others, it makes more sense that the house where the attack allegedly came from was occupied by lower-level members of the front office.
In addition, information from the attack was posted on an online hacking forum. This move suggests that the alleged hack was not carried out to gain a competitive advantage, but rather to embarrass the Astros and their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who previously worked in the Cardinals front office. This theory was supported by a source for Tom Verducci of SI.com.
“The motivation, especially having the information published, seems to have been to embarrass [Luhnow],” the source familiar with the investigation told Verducci. Another source told Verducci that some in the Cardinals organisation felt Luhnow took too much credit for the recent success of the Cardinals. Schmidt described Luhnow as a “polarising executive.”
The original Times report also said the hackers appeared to gain access to the network by using old passwords that Luhnow and other former members of the Cardinals front office who also left to join the Astros used when they were still working for the Cardinals.
The competitive advantage theory.
However, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the hack was more complicated than just simply stealing a password.
“Initially, the assumption was that it was a hacker having fun. While the Astros’ security wasn’t strong, the source [with Major League Baseball] said, the breach involved more than taking old passwords from Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow’s days as Cardinals farm director and inputting them into a website.”
And then there is the information itself. While internal trade discussions were leaked online and eventually posted to Deadspin, the database also contained “proprietary statistics and scouting reports” according to the Times report. That information has not been leaked online.
“There was more out there,” the league source told Passan.
MLB is apparently worried about another leak online. However, there is also the possibility that the other information was indeed used as a competitive advantage.
While some scoff at the possibility of the Cardinals, one of the sport’s most successful franchises, needing information from a team in the midst of their third-straight season with at least 106 losses, the fact remains that a person (Luhnow) the Cardinals used to rely on for information is now generating that information for another club, and there is potential value in having that information.
If the information went further up the chain of command, the penalty from Major League Baseball is going to be much stiffer than one handed down for stealing signs.
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