US Government officials have announced a round of sanctions and criminal indictments against an alleged Iranian hacker network that targeted hundreds of universities, businesses, NGOs, and Government organizations world-wide.
“Today, in one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice, we have unmasked criminals who normally hide behind the ones and zeros of computer code,” said Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.
The indictment connects nine of 10 named individuals to the Mabna Institute, a tech firm based in Shiraz, a major center for Iran’s electronics industries.The Justice Department alleges that the Mabna Institute is frequently hired to hack international targets for Iranian universities and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC).
Charges leveled against the defendants include computer fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, and identity theft.
Defendants named in the indictment cannot travel to more than 100 countries without fear of arrest and extradition to the United States.
The sanctions also block any financial transactions with the defendants and will freeze any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
A Large-Scale Phishing Attack
The indictment alleges that the accused worked on behalf of the IRGC to hack the computer systems of approximately 320 universities in 22 countries, with 144 of those universities located in the United States.
Prosecutors allege that, between 2013 and 2017, the defendants targeted more than 100,000 accounts of university professors in a systematic phishing campaign, and succeeded in compromising some 8,000 accounts—a pretty impressive click-through rate, to be honest.
According to prosecutors, the hackers stole over 31 terabytes of data and intellectual property—or roughly 15 billion pages of text. Research valued at roughly $2 billion was stolen from universities alone, according to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“That information was used by the Revolutionary Guard, or sold for profit in Iran,” said Rosenstein.
The IGRC, a military group under the direct control of Iran’s leadership, has frequently been accused of stealing intellectual property for its own purposes.