Iranians Charged with Hacking into Universities, Govt. Agencies

Posted March 25, 2018

On Friday, President Donald Trump administration imposed sanctions against 10 Iranian nationals and an IT firm over allegations of launching what it described as "state-sponsored hacking campaigns" against several U.S. and foreign universities as well as dozens of USA companies and government agencies.

The US Department of Justice, which said that the material stolen posed a threat to national security, issued the indictments and the Department of the Treasury froze the nine hackers' assets.

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, DC, March 23, 2018.

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Over the course of four years, prosecutors say, hackers working for the Mabna Institute stole at least 31 terabytes of data from 144 American universities, totaling $3.4 billion in intellectual property.

It contracted with both the Iranian government and private entities to conduct hacking activities on their behalf, and also specifically conducted the university spearphishing campaign for the IRGC. But the grand jury indictment, filed in federal court in Manhattan, is part of the government's "name and shame" strategy to publicly identify foreign hackers, block them from traveling without risk of arrest and put their countries on notice. These links were in fact to a site on "a malicious Internet domain named to appear confusingly similar to the authentic domain of the recipient professor's university", the indictment states.

"The defendants targeted data across all fields of research and academic disciplines, including science and technology, engineering, social sciences, medical, and other professional fields", it said.

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"Americans are pushing for harder policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we need to strengthen our view towards the East, especially China and Russia", Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

One of the 10 Iranians subject to sanctions, Behzad Mesri, was already indicted in November 2017 in connection with the theft of scripts and plot summaries for HBO's "Game of Thrones", and for trying to extort $6 million in Bitcoin out of the network.

In the case of universities, attackers targeted professors with well-crafted phishing attacks.

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The Obama administration in 2016 indicted seven Iranians for distributed-denial-of-service attacks on dozens of USA banks and for trying to shut down a NY dam. Foreign office minister for cyber Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the hackers sought to steal intellectual property "to make money and gain technological advantage at our expense". Victims also included 36 companies from the United States and 11 private companies from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and the UK. "There are more than 100 countries where they can not travel without fear of arrest and extradition", Berman said.