Two Russian intelligence officers and two independent hackers have been indicted for hacking in excess of 500 million Yahoo accounts since early 2014. The charges were revealed by the US Department of Justice on Wednesday. The document says that as well as targeting the Russian email accounts of opposition politicians and journalists, the hackers penetrated the emails of important US targets including “cybersecurity, diplomatic, military and White House personnel.”
Mary McCord, who is currently acting as Assistant Attorney General for National Security made the following comment about the indictment:
“The department of justice is continuing to send a powerful message that we will not allow individuals, groups, nation-states, or a combination of them to compromise the privacy of our citizens, the economic interests of our companies or the security of our country.”
The charges filed against Russian intelligence officers are the first time that the US has ever brought charges against official state actors. In the past, the US has prosecuted foreign hackers from Russia, China, and Iran, but it has never laid charges directly on government officials.
Not Necessarily Related to DNC Hack
The indictment comes amid the CIA-focused controversy that was unleashed last Tuesday by Wikileaks’ Vault 7. Amongst the large cache of documents released, there is evidence (code named Umbridge) that the CIA has the means to frame foreign governments (including the Russians) for hacks it carries out. This had led some to question the veracity of US allegations about Russian hacking: specifically concerning the DNC and last year’s presidential elections.
Infamous cybersecurity expert John McAfee, for example, has gone as far as to say that he believes it was the CIA that carried out the DNC hack:
“It’s pretty clear that the CIA was doing it and simply putting it on the Russians.”
Despite the enormity of the Vault 7 ‘Umbridge’ revelations, McAfee’s comments are (for now) still wild conjecture. However, no one could deny that Vault 7 certainly does shed light on vastly different possibilities. Those are possibilities that I for one have been pointing out throughout the DNC hacking scandal: digital fingerprints can be falsified and foreign actors can be framed.
When asked about a possible connection to the DNC hacks, McCord made it clear that these hackers were not necessarily involved in helping to sway the US elections for Donald Trump:
“Our indictment does not have any connection between this intrusion and the intrusions into the DNC. That is a separate investigation.”
For now, then, this indictment stands apart from other allegations of Russian election hacking, and should not be falsely thought to be proof of such.
FSB Agents Pulling Strings
The two Russian officials involved have been named as Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin. Both of those intelligence officers work for the Russian FSB intelligence agency. FSB is a Moscow-based agency whose responsibilities include counterintelligence, counter-terrorism, surveillance and border security.
Dokuchaev is known to work for “Center 18,” the cybersecurity arm of the FSB. Allegedly, Dokuchaev began working for the agency in order to get out of credit card fraud charges.
The indictment against Dokuchaev has not come as a huge surprise within the security community, due to the fact that he was arrested for treason last December. At that time, he and a cybersecurity expert from the famous Moscow firm Kaspersky were arrested by Putin’s security forces.
The details of those arrests are still incredibly murky, and journalistic sources within the nation have expressed highly inconsistent reports about the reasons for them. At that time, however, rumours did surface about his possible involvement in hacking the US, and this latest indictment would appear to validate those accusations.
The two non-government hackers involved in Wednesday’s indictment have been identified as Alexsey Belan and Karim Baratov. Belan is a Russian national who it is believed is being protected against extradition by the Russian authorities. Considering how long the US has wanted Snowden to be repatriated, the chances of the US getting their hands on Belan seems pretty small.
Karim Baratov was not so fortunate. He is a freelance hacker from Kazakhstan who lives in Canada, and has already been arrested in Toronto following these charges. His arrest was a formality, because both the Canadian authorities and the UK’s MI5 aided the US investigation that led to these indictments. It is believed that Baratov (also known as Karim Taloverov) was employed by the Russian FSB agents to carry out thousands of the Yahoo hacks.
A highly interesting part of the indictment, is the allegation that Belan also used his hacking abilities to affect the Yahoo search engine in order to make financial gains. Talking about this part of the indictment McCord said:
“The criminal hackers used this to line their own pockets for private financial gain.”
According to the indictment, Belan did this by affecting Yahoo search results to serve people adverts for an erectile dysfunction pill, which he was receiving revenue for by the click. It is not yet clear what sort of sums he might have amassed by doing this.
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