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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

US charges Russian intelligence officers in major cyberattacks

The worldwide hacking campaign caused mass disruption and cost billions of dollars by attacking targets like a French presidential election, the electricity grid in Ukraine and the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

By: New York Times | Updated: October 20, 2020 3:06:58 pm
Cybersecurity and national security experts had long argued that the Russians were behind the hacks that prosecutors detailed Monday. (Bloomberg/Representational)

Written by Michael S Schmidt and Nicole Perlroth

The Justice Department on Monday unsealed charges accusing six Russian military intelligence officers of an aggressive worldwide hacking campaign that caused mass disruption and cost billions of dollars by attacking targets like a French presidential election, the electricity grid in Ukraine and the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Prosecutors said the suspects were from the same unit that helped distribute stolen Democratic emails in the 2016 election. Though Justice Department officials played down the timing of the announcement two weeks before the presidential election, it nevertheless served as U.S. officials’ latest censure of Russia’s hostile intrusions into other countries’ affairs, even as President Donald Trump has adopted a more accommodating stance toward Moscow.

The prosecutors focused on seven breaches that together showed how Russia sought in recent years to use its hacking abilities to undermine democratic institutions and ideals, retaliate against enemies and destroy rival economies.

“No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously or irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented damage to pursue small tactical advantages and to satisfy fits of spite,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security.

He added, “Their cyberattack combined the emotional maturity of a petulant child with the resources of a nation-state.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington strongly denied the allegations. “It is absolutely obvious that such news breaks have no bearing on reality and are aimed at whipping up Russophobic sentiments in American society, at launching a ‘witch hunt’ and spy mania, which have been a distinctive feature of the political life in Washington for several years,” the embassy’s press office said in a written statement Monday.

Prosecutors said the suspects worked for Unit 74455 of the Russian intelligence Main Directorate, commonly referred to as the GRU. Known among cybersecurity analysts as Sandworm, the unit worked hand in hand with another GRU unit to leak Democrats’ stolen emails during the 2016 election, embarrassing Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the final stretch.

Cybersecurity and national security experts had long argued that the Russians were behind the hacks that prosecutors detailed Monday. But the indictment was the first time a major law enforcement agency made the allegation, bolstering the hacking unit’s notoriety as one of the most audacious in the world.

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