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