St. Louis Cardinals hacking away at Houston Astros? FBI investigates

The St. Louis Cardinals lost the 2013 World Series to the Boston Red Sox, the same year they are accused of hacking the Houston Astros. (Reuters/USA Today Sports)
Corporate espionage through cyber-hacking may have just jumped from the boardroom to the ball fields. The FBI is investigating St. Louis Cardinals baseball team for hacking into the Houston Astros’ database, Major League Baseball confirmed.

Unnamed Cardinals’ employees are accused of breaking into the Astros’ internal networks to steal proprietary information, including discussions about trades, sophisticated statistical analysis and scouting reports, according to the New York Times, who first reported the story on Tuesday. Investigators from the FBI’s Houston, Texas field office have served subpoenas on the St. Louis, Missouri team and on MLB for electronic correspondence.

From 1994 to 2012, the Cardinals and Astros were division rivals in the National League (NL) Central. In 2011, St. Louis executive Jeff Luhnow left his role as the head of the team’s scouting department to become Houston’s general manager. That same year, the Cardinals won the World Series. At the time, the Astros were considered perennial basement-dwellers both in the NL East and their new division, the American League (AL) West.

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane (R) and General Manager Jeff Luhnow (L) on Opening Day in Houston March 31, 2013. (Reuters/Richard Carson)

Law enforcement officials believe the hacking was "executed by vengeful front-office employees for the Cardinals hoping to wreak havoc on” Luhnow’s work, Michael S. Schmidt wrote for the NY Times. He described Luhnow as “successful and polarizing” with an “unconventional approach to running a baseball team.”

Luhnow is a proponent of the so-called ‘Moneyball’ method of evaluating players and building a team, meaning focusing on new and sometimes controversial statistics, made famous by the book and film about the 2002 Oakland Athletics. The coach of that team, Billy Beane, called it a “technology-based roster-building and algorithm-driven decision-making” approach in a 2014 Wall Street Journal piece.

As a St. Louis executive, Luhnow used a computer network, called Redbird, built by the team, to compile the stats and reports on players. When he ‒ and several other members of the front-office staff ‒ left for Houston, Luhnow created a similar program for the Astros, called Ground Control, which Bloomberg Business described as “the repository of the organization’s collective baseball knowledge—the Astros’ brain.”

That brain got hacked in 2013, though, compromising Ground Control’s baseball operations information.

“The attack would represent the first known case of corporate espionage in which a professional sports team hacked the network of another team,” Schmidt wrote.

It was not a sophisticated hack, law enforcement officials told the NY Times. Instead, they believe the Cardinals used a master list of passwords that Luhnow and the other St. Louis-cum-Houston front-office staff used to gain access to Ground Control.

“It is by all accounts a marvel, an easy-to-use interface giving executives instant access to player statistics, video, and communications with other front offices around baseball. All it needs, apparently, is a little better password protection,” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky wrote in a June 2014 piece on the program.

At that point, 10 months of Ground Control’s proprietary information ‒ namely, the Astros’ trade discussions ‒ had been posted online at Anonbin.

“Last month, we were made aware that proprietary information held on Astros' servers and in Astros' applications had been illegally obtained. Upon learning of the security breach, we immediately notified MLB security who, in turn, notified the FBI,” Houston wrote in a statement. “Since that time, we have been working closely with MLB security and the FBI to... determine the party, or parties, responsible. This information was illegally obtained and published, and we intend to prosecute those involved to the fullest extent.”

Since the hack, the Astros have updated and upgraded their security, Luhnow told reporters, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"Major League Baseball has been aware of and has fully cooperated with the federal investigation into the illegal breach of the Astros' baseball operations database,” the league said in a statement. “Once the investigative process has been completed by federal law enforcement officials, we will evaluate the next steps and will make decisions promptly."

Both baseball teams issued statements as well, noting that they are cooperating with FBI and Department of Justice officials, but offering no other comment.

Accessing a computer without authorization, or hacking, is a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.