A group of nine state-sponsored Iranian computer hackers has been charged with a wide-ranging scheme to infiltrate the computer systems of American universities according to a statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice. The deputy director announced that the hackers also broke into the network of a law firm in addition to the universities targeted.
Reportedly, the primary goal of the group was to steal scientific research from these universities. The hackers were employed by the Mabna Institute, an organization created to assist Iranian universities in gaining cutting-edge scientific research. The statement from the DOJ alleges that the research was forwarded to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, which likely shared or sold it to other parties. In all, 320 universities spanning 22 countries were targeted. Of those, 144 of them were American universities. The DOJ believes that the amount of research stolen cost approximately $3.4 billion for the universities to procure and maintain. Also, over 30 American businesses were hacked including the law firm, two publishing companies and some other organizations.
The hackers reportedly obtained access to these systems using a technique known as 'email spraying." This technique involves collecting email addresses associated with a university and trying as many common passwords as possible. When the group would gain access to an email account, they would download the entire email history and monitor the address going forward.
The investigation and prosecution of computer fraud has become a hot topic in the current political climate. An individual charged with computer fraud could face fines, restitution and even incarceration. An individual charged with computer fraud may wish to contact an attorney experienced in defending against federal crimes. An attorney may be able to explain the potential jeopardy and the potential outcomes. An attorney might use their knowledge of local sentencing standards to negotiate a plea deal that is as favorable as possible. Alternatively, an attorney may be able to defend that individual in front of a jury of their peers.