As previewed earlier, a grand jury in California has charged four people — including two Russian FSB intelligence officers, i.e. "spies" — in a pair of computer hacks against Yahoo that victimised hundreds of millions of consumers, the DOJ said on Wednesday. The men penetrated Yahoo’s email accounts, often using “spear phishing” emails, and used information they obtained to access other accounts at Yahoo and Google,, prosecutors said.
Watch the press conference live:
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With Yahoo having previously accused "state actors" in its historic breach, which exposed the personal data of one billion users, and led to a drop in the price which Verizon ultimately paid for the core business, the WaPo reports, that the Justice Department is set to announce the indictments of two Russian spies and two criminal hackers in connection with the heist of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014, marking the first U.S. criminal cyber charges ever against Russian government officials.
The indictments is said to target two members of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and two hackers hired by the Russians. The charges include hacking, wire fraud, trade secret theft and economic espionage.
According to government officials, in the 2014 hack, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB - a successor to the KGB - supposedly sought information for intelligence purposes, targeting journalists, dissidents and U.S. government officials, but allowed the criminal hackers to use the email cache for the officials’ and the hackers’ financial gain, through spamming and other operations. Breaking into a Yahoo account would give the hackers access to a user’s activity on Flickr, Tumblr, fantasy sports and other Yahoo applications.
The charges “illustrate the murky world of Russian intel services using criminal hackers in a wide variety of ways,” said Milan Patel, a former FBI Cyber Division supervisory special agent who is now a managing director at K2 Intelligence, a cyber firm.
While the indictments will be part of the largest hacking case brought by the United States, the charges are unrelated to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. However, the charge of FSB individuals clearly reflects the U.S. government’s increasing desire to hold foreign governments accountable for malicious acts in cyberspace.
Once charged, however, it is unclear how the Russian "spies" will be brough to justice as the US does not have an extradition treaty with Russia. The WaPo however, notes thatofficials have said that taking steps such as charges and imposing sanctions can have a deterrent effect.
"People also sometimes slip up and travel to a country that is able and willing to transfer them to the United States for prosecution."
The 2014 Yahoo hack was first reported last fall, in what was then considered the largest data breach in history. The firm later disclosed another intrusion affecting more than 1 billion user accounts in 2013, far surpassing the 2014 event, although officials have not determined if there is a link between the two.
The twin hacks clouded the prospects for the sale of Yahoo’s core business to telecommunications giant Verizon. The deal is proceeding after Verizon negotiated the price down in the wake of the data breaches.
Some more details on the soon to be charged individuals:
The indicted FSB officers are Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, his superior. The men worked for the cyber investigative arm of the FSB — a rough equivalent of the FBI’s Cyber Division. "That the agency that is supposed to investigate computer intrusions Russia is engaged in hacking is pretty sad,” an official was quoted by the WaPo.
Dokuchaev, whose hacker alias was “Forb,” was arrested in December in Moscow, according to the news agency Interfax, on charges of state treason for passing information to the CIA. He had reportedly agreed to work for the FSB to avoid prosecution for bank card fraud.
Another man indicted in the case is Alexsey Belan, who is on the most-wanted cyber list and has been charged twice before, in connection with intrusions into three major tech firms in Nevada and California in 2012 and 2013. He was in custody in Greece for a time, but made his way back to Russia, where he is being protected by authorities, officials said. The other hacker-for-hire is Karim Baratov, who was born in Kazakhstan but has Canadian citizenship. He was arrested in Canada on Tuesday.
The WaPo adds that the indictments grew out of a nearly two-year investigation by the San Francisco FBI with the aid of international law enforcement, officials said. “They have the effect of galvanizing other countries that are watching what’s happening,” said Luke Dembosky, a former deputy assistant attorney general for national security. “They show that we have the resources and capabilities to identify the people at the keyboard, even in the most sophisticated cases.”
In a similar crackdown against a state hacker, three years ago, the United States brought charges against five Chinese military hackers for economic espionage, marking the first time cyber-related charges were levied against foreign government officials. After the Chinese military hackers were indicted, officials said their activity seemed to dwindle. And the indictments, Dembosky said, helped wrest a pledge in 2015 from the Chinese to stop economic cyber espionage against U.S. firms.
In late December, the Obama administration levied economic sanctions on Moscow for its election-year meddling. At the same time, the government sanctioned two Russian criminal hackers with no apparent connection to the Kremlin’s interference campaign. They included Belan, who is one of the four indicted in the Yahoo case.
It is unclear how the Kremlin will respond to this latest escalation in the alleged cyberwar between the two nations, although an "in kind" allegation of hacking charges against US-based entities is to be expected.