US authorities have announced charges against nine Iranians who allegedly broke into the computer systems of 320 universities in 22 countries.
The charged individuals, as well as the organisation they work for, the Mabna Institue, will also be hit with economic sanctions, US officials said on Friday.
According to Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the alleged hackers breached university computer systems and stole intellectual property and other research.
“They hacked the computer systems of approximately 320 universities in 22 countries. One hundred forty-four of the victims are American universities,” Rosenstein said in a statement.
“The defendants stole research that cost the universities approximately $3.4bn to procure and maintain,” he said.
The stolen information was then used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or sold for profit in Iran, according to the US charges.
In total, the suspects have been charged with committing seven crimes, including computer fraud, conspiracy and identity theft.
The cyberattacks were allegedly carried out by the Mabna Institute in Iran, which was founded by two of the people charged on Friday, and specifically focused on giving Iranian industries a competitive advantage.
“Revealing the Mabna Institute’s nefarious activities makes it harder for them to do business,” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman said.
“Additionally, we are working with foreign law enforcement agencies and providing the private sector with information to help neutralise Mabna’s hacking infrastructure.”
Nine Iranian nationals are wanted by the #FBI for their involvement in computer intrusion, wire fraud, & aggravated identity theft as part of a hacking scheme. Victims included American and foreign universities, private companies, and government entities: https://t.co/GlfxyaB7ji pic.twitter.com/MWJ91yxNjd
— FBI Most Wanted (@FBIMostWanted) March 23, 2018
The indictment also lays out new economic sanctions aimed at both the nine individuals as well as the Shiraz-based Mabna Institute.
Describing the cyberattack as “the largest state-sponsored hacking campaign”, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman for the Southern District of New York said through the sanctions and charges against them, the hackers are no longer free to travel outside Iran without risk of arrest.
“The defendants are now fugitives from justice. There are more than 100 countries where they cannot travel without fear of arrest and extradition,” Berman said.
“And, thanks to the Treasury Department, the defendants will find it difficult to engage in business or financial transactions outside of Iran.”
The charges come in a period where the US seemingly is taking steps towards a more hawkish stance on Iran.
On Thursday, US President Donald Trump announced he will replace National Security Adviser HR McMaster with John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who has encouraged the use of force against Iran.
Last week, Trump also forced out Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, appointing CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement.
Pompeo, much like Bolton and Trump, is seen as being very critical of Iran.