Iranians in FBI’s crosshairs accused of stealing sensitive data on 150,000 Americans

U.S. prosecutors indicted on Monday seven Iranians for hacking computers to steal Social Security numbers and other personal information of more than 150,000 Americans as part of an effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

The men were all charged with conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government – a violation of the Neutrality Act, a criminal law governing suspected espionage.

A complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan accuses them of working in the employ of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The 17 defendants include the leader of an elite hacker unit known as Unit 61398, which Iran describes as its most powerful computer network in the country, and a senior member of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, according to a copy of the complaint reviewed by Reuters.

Iran rejected the charges.

“Such baseless action lacks all credibility and Washington should respect the sovereignty of the nation,” the Revolutionary Guard’s director of information technology, Hossein Rezai, said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Justice said the hacking and attempted hacking carried out by the defendants ran from March 2012 through November 2016, with an initial effort in that year to steal Social Security numbers from voters, primarily in seven states.

In addition to stealing Social Security numbers, the defendants also exploited weaknesses in the software and operating systems of many of those states’ elections administration systems and attempted to “generate large numbers of phishing emails” to target voting officials, the department said.

In some cases, the individuals targeted were members of government security clearance panels or their immediate family members.

Reuters is not naming any of the seven defendants because they have not been charged with a crime in the United States.

All seven defendants were arrested after authorities in Great Britain, South Korea and Canada successfully identified them and confiscated their computers, the Department of Justice said.

U.S. prosecutors in South Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Arizona, Illinois and Nevada are conducting parallel investigations into the hacking and attempted hacking of voter registration databases in those states, according to the complaint.

Seventeen of the defendants were detained, while one had his U.S. passport revoked, the department said. It did not say which of the 17 is being held in the United States.

The eight other defendants, including the government official, remain fugitives, according to the complaint.

The charges filed Monday – the most concrete evidence to date of alleged interference by Iran’s government in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – come less than two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump has placed Iran “on notice” over its ballistic missile tests and its alleged support for militant groups, raising fears of a wider conflict in the Middle East.

The Revolutionary Guard often refers to the group as its highest-level cyber force responsible for defensive operations as well as offensive hacking.

The investigation by U.S. and allied intelligence agencies that led to the charges was motivated in part by concerns that hacking of state election systems will be used to influence future U.S. elections, Matthew Levitt, former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of defense for Iran under the Obama administration, said.

Separately, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a New York Times op-ed this month that Iran has used cyber attacks and cyber-espionage to develop a network of spies across the Middle East, Latin America and Europe.

Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election had a similar hacking focus, so Iranian interference in U.S. elections and subsequent investigations into whether it amounted to an interference effort could be critical for future action.

Reuters has reported that Russia has tried to break into U.S. government and Democratic Party computer networks in recent years, but it has denied involvement in the 2016 election.

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