Friday morning, the Justice Department announced charges against a ring of Iranian hackers that prosecutors say stole billions in research from over 100 American universities, government agencies, and also foreign universities.
The attack was described as a "massive and brazen cyber-assault" and "one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted" by Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The case is only the second time federal prosecutors have charged hackers who were working for the Iranian government.
In 2013, the Department of Defense indicted seven Iranian hackers for coordinated cyber attacks that targeted the U.S. financial sector as well as a New York dam. The charges announced Friday, however, are part of a larger effort to take down a series of digital theft campaigns that have cost the U.S. billions in stolen research.
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"The government of Iran systematically and methodically hacked into our country’s computer networks with the intent to steal as much information as possible," Berman said at Friday's press conference. In particular, the indictments targeted the Iran-based Mabna Institute.
The DOJ says the Mabna Institute was founded in 2013 "to assist Iranian universities and scientific and research organizations in stealing access to non-Iranian scientific resources." U.S. prosecutors say the group spent the last four years stealing at least 31 terabytes of intellectual property totally $3.4 billion in value. The victims of the cyber attacks are primarily 144 American universities but include some federal agencies as well as 176 foreign universities.
The indictments also reveal the Iranian hackers stole data from 36 American companies including two media and entertainment organizations, five consulting firms, a healthcare company as well as an online car sales firm and a food and beverage company. When it comes to the federal agencies victimized by the attacks, the indictments say they included Hawaii and Indiana state governments, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Labor.
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Over the course of four years, the Mabna Institute hacked the email accounts of 8,000 professors across the globe, as well as the United Nations and the United Nations Children's Fund. The DOJ says many of the breaches were conducted "on behalf of" Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, "as well as other Iranian government and university clients."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said, "This type of public identification helps to deter state-sponsored computer intrusions by stripping hackers of their anonymity and by imposing real consequences." The nine Iranian hackers will now face arrest and extradition to the U.S. in over 100 countries as a result of the indictments.
Iran is also facing a new wave of sanctions as a result of the state-sponsored cyber attacks. Rosenstein said in regard to sanctions, "We’re going to continue to pursue this strategy. I think that it will have an impact."
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