‘Big hunt’ for Rus­sian hack­ers

…but no ob­vi­ous elec­tion link

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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 the po­lice raided his hol­i­day rental in Barcelona, march­ing him out in hand­cuffs to face charges of be­ing one of the world’s most no­to­ri­ous spam lords. His April 7 ar­rest was one in a se­ries of US-ini­ti­ated op­er­a­tions over the past year to seize al­leged Rus­sian cy­ber­crim­i­nals out­side their home­land, which has no ex­tra­di­tion agree­ment with the US.

They come at a fraught mo­ment in re­la­tions be­tween Mos­cow and Wash­ing­ton, in which politi­cians are grap­pling with the al­le­ga­tion that Krem­lin hack­ers in­ter­vened in the US 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 there is lit­tle 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 added the re­cent burst of ar­rests made it look like the US 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 he 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 politi­cise their cases.

At least five Rus­sians have been picked up in Europe as part of US cy­ber­crime pros­e­cu­tions in the past nine months.

Evgeny Nikulin, 29, was ar­rested in Prague in Oc­to­ber, ac­cused of hack­ing into Linked In 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 US af­ter be­ing pulled off a train at the Rus­sia-Latvia bor­der in April.

On Tues­day, Alexan­der Vin­nik, 38, was ar­rested in Greece on charges of run­ning a money laun­der­ing ring for hack­ers that pro­cessed bil­lions of dol­lars in dig­i­tal cur­rency.

Levashov, 36, who made his first court ap­pear­ance in Madrid for a brief hear­ing on Wed­nes­day, is eas­ily the best known of the five.

He is charged with fraud and unau­tho­rised in­ter­cep­tion of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but his spam­ming ca­reer is said to stretch back to the turn of the mil­len­nium, when the busi­ness of stuff­ing e-mail 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 e-mail baron once dubbed the “King of Spam.”

Ral­sky de­scribed the Rus­sian as a master of his trade.

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 around the world.

By then, Levashov had crossed Amer­i­can law en- force­ment’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, spam-spew­ing 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 Rus- sian in­tel­li­gence ex­pert, who said Levashov spear­headed an ef­fort to knock out web­sites linked to Is­lamist in­sur­gen­cies in south­ern Rus­sia.

When Levashov was fi­nally caught, his wife Maria drew in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion when she was quoted as say­ing the ar­rest was “linked to Trump’s win.” How­ever, she pulled back from those com­ments.

Levashov’s lawyer, Mar­garita Repina, of­fered a sim­i­lar qual­i­fi­ca­tion to her as­ser­tion that US of­fi­cials were “just tak­ing hack­ers with any ex­cuse to see if any of them ad­mits in­volve­ment in the Trump is­sue”.

“This is just an opin­ion,” she said. “We have no ev­i­dence.”

Le­gal doc­u­ments sug­gest the lat­est ef­fort to catch Levashov be­gan well be­fore the elec­tion. In a sworn dec­la­ra­tion, FBI agent El­liott Petersen said he had be­gun track­ing Keli­hos, the lat­est in­car­na­tion of Levashov’s al­leged spam bot­net op­er­a­tion, more than two years ago.

The for­mer spam king was also skep­ti­cal that Levashov’s ar­rest was linked to the vote.

“They’ve been af­ter him for a long time,” Ral­sky said.

Levashov wouldn’t be alone in float­ing thinly sup­ported claims that his pros­e­cu­tion is re­lated to last year’s elec­tion. The at­tor­ney for Lisov, who was also ar­rested in Barcelona and spent a month as Levashov’s cell­mate in Madrid, told an ex­tra­di­tion hear­ing last week that there was “a game of chess that es­capes us” be­tween Mos­cow and Wash­ing­ton. Juan Manuel Ar­royo sug­gested the US ex­tra­di­tion re­quest was “not nor­mal”.

Nikulin, who is the sub­ject of a con­flict­ing ex­tra­di­tion re­quest from Rus­sia, has been the most ex­plicit. He told a judge in Prague that he was twice taken out of prison and of­fered a par­don, US cit­i­zen­ship and refuge for his par­ents if he con­fessed to hav­ing “hacked the Demo­cratic Party” on the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment’s or­ders.

There’s lit­tle ev­i­dence for the in­flam­ma­tory claim.

Mar­ty­shev’s at­tor­ney did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment, but the Rus­sian pleaded not guilty to all charges at a court hear­ing in Alexan­dria ear­lier this month.

Levashov may soon be join­ing him in Amer­ica.

His ex­tra­di­tion to the US seems a fore­gone con­clu­sion, ac­cord­ing to Repina, his at­tor­ney. She ar­gued that would hardly be fair given that, in Rus­sia, the spam­ming he’s al­leged to have car­ried out may not even be a crime.

“In his coun­try, Levashov has le­gal busi­nesses and a fam­ily that he needs to pro­vide for,” she said. “He is a pa­triot”. – ANA-AP

PIC­TURE: AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A copy of the let­ter writ­ten by Rus­sian lawyer Vladimir Ma­keev to US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump lies on a com­puter screen show­ing ar­chive YouTube footage, dated Au­gust 2, 2015, fea­tur­ing sus­pected hacker Yevgeny Nikulin af­ter a sportscar race out­side Mos­cow, Rus­sia. The US has or­ches­trated the ar­rest of five al­leged Rus­sian cy­ber crim­i­nals across Europe in the past nine months.

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