Russian spies used 'criminal hackers' in attacks, says FBI
It was June 2013, and US law enforcement thought they were finally getting their hands on a slippery target: Russian hacker Alexsey Belan, indicted in Nevada and California for computer intrusions at three US e-commerce companies, had been arrested in Europe.
Instead, Belan escaped to Russia, where the US charges didn't hamper his job prospects.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) enlisted the man to help the agency hack into American Internet companies, including Yahoo.
That at least is the conspiracy theory laid out in an indictment in a US Federal Court in San Francisco, which reveals the internal workings of Russia's state cyber-spying regime, implicated in alleged attempts to influence the US election last year.
Increasingly, it's a system that capitalises on a vast and talented pool of Russian-speaking cyber criminals, blurring the lines between profit and intelligence gathering.
"We believe that their technical capabilities are not where they're purported to be and they're using criminal hackers," said Jack Bennett, the San Francisco Division Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's San Francisco office.
Besides Belan, the US indicted two FSB officials, Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, and a second hacker, Karim Baratov, a Kazakh living in Canada. It's a first for the US, which has never before indicted anyone from the FSB for cyber-crimes, said Edward McAndrew, a former federal cybercrime prosecutor and now co-chair of the privacy and data security group at the law firm Ballard Spahr.
"It obviously comes at a very intense time in our relationship with Russia and its cyber activities," he said. "It also provides the public with fresh insight into the way that nation-state actors are enlisting cyber criminals of all types, from syndicates to lone wolves, to engage in sophisticated cyber campaigns."
The indictment offers a lot of new information about the hack into Yahoo in 2014 that affected around half a billion accounts. "The indictment unequivocally shows the attacks on Yahoo were state-sponsored," Chris Madsen, an assistant general counsel for security and law enforcement at Yahoo, said in a statement.
Belan remains at large in Russia. So does Sushchin. Dokuchaev, who worked in the FSB's information-security division, was detained in December by Russian law enforcement, on suspicion of having links to US intelligence.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked about the possibility of co-operation on the Yahoo case, told Bloomberg that Russia is interested in cooperating with the US against cyber threats. (Bloomberg)