On Wednesday, the US Department of Justice announced the indictment of at least two Russian spies and two criminal hackers who were responsible for the cyber hacking attacks on at least 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014. This marks the first ever U.S. criminal cyber charges ever against a state-sponsored criminal group who are actually legitimate Russian government officials. The Justice Department has targeted at least two members of the Russian intelligence agency FSB (Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti or Federal Security Service) as well as two hackers hired by the Russians, including a Canadian citizen.
The indictment charges will include hacking, wire fraud, trade secret theft, and economic espionage, among just a few to be mentioned, according to State Department officials. The indictments are so far the largest in any hacking case brought by the United States. The present charges are unrelated to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the FBI’s investigation of so-called Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. However, this present move does reflect on the U.S. government’s increasing desire to hold foreign governments accountable for malicious acts in cyberspace since it started investigating cyber-attacks in the past from Iran and the recent discovery of spying apps in commercial Chinese smartphone brands.
The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, but Justice Department officials have pointed out that taking steps such as imposing sanctions and pressing charges can be a deterrent for the future. Some people can also make the mistake of travelling to a country with an extradition treaty with the U.S. and is willing to transfer them to the United States for prosecution. In the 2014 hack that compromised millions of Yahoo accounts, the FSB, or Russia’s Federal Security Service, and the successor to the former KGB, used the hacked information for intelligence purposes and targeted journalists, dissidents, and government officials, but also allowed the criminals they hired to use all that stolen information for any financial gain that must be shared with the Russian officials. Spamming and other illegal hacking operations were carried out or approved by the FSB.
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According to Milan Patel, a former FBI Cyber Division supervisory special agent who is now a managing director at K2 Intelligence, a cyber-firm, “The charges illustrate the murky world of Russian intelligence services using or hiring criminal hackers in a wide variety of ways.” Although FBI agents have long suspected that the Russians have used cyber mercenaries to do their work, this case is among the first in which evidence can now be offered to clearly show all this. The indicted FSB officers are Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, his superior. Another man indicted is hacker-for-hire Alexsey Belan, who is on the list of most-wanted cyber criminals and has been charged twice before, in connection with intrusions into three major tech firms in Nevada and California in 2012 and 2013. The other hacker-for-hire is Karim Baratov, who was born in Kazakhstan but has Canadian citizenship. He was arrested in Canada on Tuesday.