Nine Iranians have been charged with stealing secrets from American government agencies, universities and companies. The group of hackers stole intellectual property from the computer systems of 144 American universities, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Labor Department, and the states of Indiana and Hawaii. They also infiltrated 176 universities in 21 countries around the world, dozens of domestic and foreign companies, and the United Nations.
The suspects live in Iran and will not be extradited, making it unlikely they will ever be arrested. The United States and Iran currently have no diplomatic relations. However, the indictments mean that the Iranians will not be able to travel abroad without risk of arrest in more than 100 countries. The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on them.
The suspects worked at the Mabna Institute, based in Iran. The Mabna Institute is accused of stealing more than 31 terabytes of academic data and intellectual property in a scheme that continued for more than four years. The institute is seen as working on behalf of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Federal law enforcement officials said the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps benefited from the sensitive information obtained in the hacking.
The scheme was one of the largest state-sponsored cybercrime cases ever charged by the Justice Department. The hackers gained access through phishing emails that gave them access to unsuspecting people’s computers after those emails were opened. More than 100,000 professors worldwide were targeted with the emails. The affected professors and universities were not identified.
According to reports by American intelligence officials, the Iranian government has long been using online breaches to attack private companies in the United States and its allies. The country relies on contractors, volunteers, patriotic hackers and engineers at Iranian universities to conduct the attacks, giving the government some deniability. The science and engineering research stolen is then used by the Iranian government or sold for profit.
Iranian hackers have escalated their attacks over the past five years. In late 2012, a spate of attacks took down the online banking websites of about a dozen United States banks. Less than two years later, Iranian hackers attacked the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas with malware that wiped the casino’s data off its machines and brought operations to a halt.
Tehran called the sanctions provocative, illegal and unjustified. Bahram Ghasemi, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, condemned the charges as “another sign of hostility of the U.S. government towards Iranian nation.”