The US Department of Justice and Department of the Treasury on Friday charged nine Iranians with carrying out a series of internet attacks on more than 300 universities and 47 companies in the US and abroad, as well as federal and state agencies and the United Nations.
The defendants were involved in various capacities with the Mabna Institute, a company based in Iran that, according to the Justice Department, has been coordinating cyberattacks to steal academic data and credentials on behalf of the government of Iran.
"The indictment alleges that the defendants worked on behalf of the Iranian government, specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in prepared remarks delivered at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
"They hacked the computer systems of approximately 320 universities in 22 countries. One-hundred forty-four of the victims are American universities. The defendants stole research that cost the universities approximately $3.4bn to procure and maintain."
The nine defendants – Gholamreza Rafatnejad, 38; Ehsan Mohammadi, 37; Abdollah Karima, aka Vahid Karima, 39; Mostafa Sadeghi, 28; Seyed Ali Mirkarimi, 34; Mohammed Reza Sabahi, 26; Roozbeh Sabahi, 24; Abuzar Gohari Moqadam, 37; and Sajjad Tahmasebi, 30 – are all citizens and residents of Iran, which does not have an extradition agreement with the US.
As was the case with the special counsel Robert Mueller's recent indictment of 13 Russians for 2016 US election shenanigans, it's not clear whether or when the defendants will be brought before a judge.
Warning to others
Rosenstein suggested that the indictments have value even if the defendants may be out of reach. He said the indictments highlight the need for organizations to harden their cybersecurity defenses and send a message to others that the US will take steps to protect its interests.
"By bringing these criminal charges, we reinforce a norm that most of the civilized world accepts: nation-states should not steal intellectual property for the purpose of giving domestic industries a competitive advantage," said Rosenstein.
Rosenstein said the defendants are now fugitives and risk arrest and extradition if they travel to any of the more than 100 countries that do have extradition agreements with the US. He also said the Treasury Department has taken action to limit the ability of the defendants to conduct financial transactions or do business outside of Iran.
In a parallel statement, the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said it has added one Iranian entity (the Mabna Institute) and ten Iranian individuals (the nine defendants among them) to its Specially Designated Nationals List, which blocks their interest in property under US jurisdiction and prohibits US persons from doing business with them.
The charges were welcomed by officials in the UK, which was also targeted in the attacks. In a statement, Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK's Foreign Office Minister for Cyber, said, "The focus on universities is a timely reminder that all organisations are potential targets and need to constantly strive for the best possible cyber security."
The US indictment, unsealed in a Manhattan federal court on Friday, describes a coordinated effort from 2013 through the end of 2017 involving online reconnaissance of university professors, to determine their research interests, followed by attempted spear phishing.
Spear phishing messages, according to the indictment, would appear to be from another professor inquiring about one of the target's articles and would include a link. Clicking on the link would take the victim to a confusingly similar domain to the victim's university and present a fake login page.
With credentials stolen in this manner, the attackers were able to exfiltrate 31.5 terabytes of academic data and intellectual property.
Over 100,000 professors worldwide were targeted in this manner, about half of them in the US. The attackers succeeded in compromising an estimated 7,998 accounts, a success rate of almost 8 per cent.
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In 2016, security biz Cloudmark said that among companies that conduct phishing tests on their employees, the failure rate (success rate if you're an attacker) is 16 per cent.
The indictment also describes how the defendants allegedly went after private sector companies using a technique referred to as "password spraying." They would collect names and email addresses for employees and then try lists of commonly used passwords. The indictment does not reveal how many accounts were compromised in this way.
The defendants face charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, unauthorized access of a computer, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft. The resulting sentence could add up to decades behind bars, if any of defendants are actually caught, tried, and found guilty. ®