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US Charges, Sanctions Iranians for Global Cyber-attacks on Behalf of Tehran

The Obama administration in 2016 indicted seven Iranians for distributed-denial-of-service attacks on dozens of US banks and for trying to shut down a New York dam. Those hackers were also accused of working on behalf of Iran's government.

Reuters

Updated:March 23, 2018, 9:52 PM IST
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US Charges, Sanctions Iranians for Global Cyber-attacks on Behalf of Tehran
US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks at a news conference with other law enforcement officials at the Justice Department to announce nine Iranians charged with conducting massive cyber theft campaign, in Washington, US, March 23, 2018. (Image: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
Washington: The United States on Friday announced criminal charges and sanctions against nine Iranians and an Iranian company for attempting to hack into hundreds of universities worldwide, dozens of companies and parts of the US government, including its main energy regulator, on behalf of Tehran's government.

The cyber-attacks, beginning in at least 2013, pilfered more than 31 terabytes of academic data and intellectual property from 144 US universities and 176 universities in 21 other countries, the US Department of Justice said, describing the conspiracy as one of the largest state-sponsored hacking sprees prosecuted.

The US Treasury Department said that it was placing sanctions on the nine accused individuals and the Mabna Institute, a company described by US prosecutors as designed to help Iranian research organizations steal information.

"These defendants are now fugitives of justice," US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a press conference. Rosenstein said they may face extradition in more than 100 countries if they travel outside of Iran.

The hackers were not accused of being directly employed by Iran's government. They were instead charged with criminal conduct waged primarily through the Mabna Institute on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military force assigned to defend Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy from internal and external threats.

There was no immediate response to the charges and sanctions in Iran's state-run media.

Hackers targeted email accounts of more than 100,000 professors worldwide and compromised about 8,000 of them, prosecutors said. Hackers also targeted the US Labor Department, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the United Nations and the computer systems of the US states Hawaii and Indiana, prosecutors said.

Friday's actions are part of an effort by senior cybersecurity officials at the White House and across the US government to blame foreign countries for malicious hacks.

They were announced a day after US President Donald Trump named John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who is deeply skeptical of the 2015 international nuclear accord with Iran, as his new national security adviser. Trump himself has repeatedly cast doubt on the wisdom of the nuclear deal, in which the US and other world powers eased sanctions in exchange for Tehran putting limits on its nuclear program.

The Department of Justice on Friday privately warned major internet infrastructure companies to expect attacks from Iran, an executive at one company who received the alert said. The officials said the most likely retaliation would be denial of service attacks on websites, which are not destructive but disrupt commerce and communication.

'MOST SENSITIVE INFRASTRUCTURE'

The sanctions and charges were the fourth time in the past few months that the Trump administration has blamed a foreign government for major cyber-attacks, a practice that was relatively rare under the Obama administration.

Last week, the administration accused the Russian government of cyber-attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the US power grid. Washington imposed new sanctions on 19 Russians and five groups, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and other cyber-attacks.

The targeting of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was especially concerning, US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said, because it oversees the interstate regulation of energy in the United States and holds details of some of the country's "most sensitive infrastructure."

The Treasury Department also placed sanctions on another Iranian, Behzad Mesri. Sometimes known as "Skote Vahshat," Mesri was charged in 2017 with hacking cable TV network HBO to leak unaired episodes of the fantasy drama Game of Thrones. Mesri is still at large, officials said.

The Obama administration in 2016 indicted seven Iranians for distributed-denial-of-service attacks on dozens of US banks and for trying to shut down a New York dam. Those hackers were also accused of working on behalf of Iran's government.

None of the Iranians indicted in 2016 have been arrested or extradited, a Justice Department spokesman said.

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| Edited by: Tarun Bhardwaj
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