‘Big hunt’ for Rus­sian hack­ers, but no ob­vi­ous elec­tion link

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

Py­otr Levashov ap­peared to be just an­other com­fort­able mem­ber of Rus­sia’s ris­ing mid­dle-class — an IT en­tre­pre­neur with a taste for up­mar­ket restau­rants, Thai mas­sages and for­eign travel.

Then po­lice raided his va­ca­tion rental in Barcelona, march­ing him out in hand­cuffs to face charges of be­ing one of the world’s most no­to­ri­ous spam lords.

Levashov’s April 7 ar­rest was one in a se­ries of Amer­i­can-ini­ti­ated op­er­a­tions over the past year to seize al­leged Rus­sian cy­ber­crim­i­nals out­side their home­land, which has no ex­tra­di­tion agree­ment with the United States.

They come at a fraught mo­ment in re­la­tions be­tween Moscow and Wash­ing­ton, where politi­cians are grap­pling with the al­le­ga­tion that Krem­lin hack­ers in­ter­vened in the U.S. elec­tion to help Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Through their lawyers, sev­eral de­fen­dants have sug­gested their ar­rests are linked to the elec­tion tur­moil. Ex­perts say that’s pos­si­ble, though an As­so­ci­ated Press re­view of the cases found no firm ev­i­dence to back the claim.

“There is a big hunt un­der­way,” said An­drei Solda­tov, an ex­pert on the Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices and co-au­thor of “Red Web,” a book about Rus­sian at­tempts to con­trol the in­ter­net. He said the re­cent burst of ar­rests made it look like the United States was “try­ing to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on with a very com­pli­cated world of Rus­sian hack­ing and a very com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship be­tween Rus­sian hack­ers and Rus­sian se­cret ser­vices.”

But Solda­tov didn’t rule out an­other pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion: The im­pris­oned Rus­sians may be falsely ty­ing their ar­rests to Trump’s elec­tion in a bid to sow con­fu­sion and politi­cize their cases.

“It’s a very big ques­tion,” he said.

“HE GOT TO EV­ERY MAIL­BOX THERE EVER WAS”

At least five Rus­sians have been picked up in Europe as part of U.S. cy­ber­crime pros­e­cu­tions in the last nine months.

Evgeny Nikulin, 29, was ar­rested in a restau­rant in Prague in Oc­to­ber, ac­cused of hack­ing into LinkedIn and Drop­box around the time that tens of mil­lions of users there were com­pro­mised; Stanislav Lisov, 31, the al­leged de­vel­oper of the Nev­erQuest fi­nan­cial data-steal­ing soft­ware, was de­tained at Barcelona’s air­port dur­ing his honey­moon in Jan­uary; and Yury Mar­ty­shev, 35, ac­cused of help­ing run a ser­vice that let cy­ber­crim­i­nals test-drive their ma­li­cious soft­ware, was re­cently ex­tra­dited to the U.S. af­ter be­ing pulled off a train at the Rus­si­aLatvia bor­der in April. On Tues­day, Alexan­der Vin­nik, 38, was ar­rested at his ho­tel in Greece on charges of run­ning a money laun­der­ing ring for hack­ers that pro­cessed bil­lions of dol­lars in dig­i­tal cur­rency.

Levashov, who made his first court ap­pear­ance in Madrid for a brief hear­ing Wed­nes­day, is eas­ily the best known of the five. The 36-year-old is charged with fraud and unau­tho­rized in­ter­cep­tion of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but his spam­ming ca­reer is said to stretch back to the turn of the mil­len­nium, when the busi­ness of stuff­ing email in­boxes full of pitches for cut-price pills and penny stocks was still largely un­reg­u­lated.

Court doc­u­ments trace how Levashov, us­ing the alias Peter Sev­era, teamed up in 2005 with Alan Ral­sky, an Amer­i­can bulk email baron once dubbed the “King of Spam.”

Ral­sky de­scribed the Rus­sian as a mas­ter of his trade.

“He made me look like an am­a­teur,” Ral­sky said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “He got to ev­ery mail­box there ever was.”

Spam­mers can make a lot rent­ing out their ser­vices to those ped­dling grey mar­ket phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals or pornog­ra­phy. Ral­sky said Levashov was pulling in “more money than you could shake a stick at” and trav­elled widely, say­ing he re­mem­bered get­ting va­ca­tion snaps of the Rus­sian en­joy­ing him­self at a fish­ing cabin in Fin­land or the fa­mously ex­pen­sive Burj Al Arab ho­tel in Dubai.

By then, Levashov had crossed Amer­i­can law en­force­ment’s radar.

In 2007, he was in­dicted un­der his Sev­era alias as part of the case where Ral­sky and sev­eral as­so­ciates pleaded guilty to charges in­clud­ing wire fraud and mail fraud. Two years later, Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties iden­ti­fied Levashov by name as the op­er­a­tor of the “Storm” bot­net, a mas­sive net­work of com­pro­mised, spam­spew­ing com­put­ers.

In the Rus­sian hacker com­mu­nity, Levashov’s pro­file was ris­ing too. In on­line fo­rums, he pro­moted the idea of col­lab­o­rat­ing with Rus­sia’s spy ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to Solda­tov, the Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ex­pert, who said Levashov spear­headed an ef­fort to knock out web­sites linked to Is­lamist in­sur­gen­cies in south­ern Rus­sia.

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