World

Russian hackers charged with trying to disrupt Olympics, French election

Six Russian military officers sought to disrupt through computer hacking the French election, the Winter Olympics and U.S. businesses, according to a U.S. Justice Department indictment unsealed Monday.

U.S. indictment details list of targets in politics, finance and athletics

A poster showing six wanted Russian military intelligence officers accused in hacks U.S. prosecutors say were aimed at furthering the Kremlin's geopolitical interests and as retribution against its perceived enemies, is displayed before a Monday news conference in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via The Associated Press)

Six current and former Russian military officers sought to disrupt through computer hacking the French election, the Winter Olympics and U.S. hospitals and businesses, according to a U.S. Justice Department indictment unsealed Monday. It details destructive attacks on a broad range of targets and implicates the same Kremlin unit that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election

The indictment accuses the defendants, all alleged officers in the Russian military agency known as the GRU, in hacks that prosecutors say were aimed at furthering the Kremlin's geopolitical interests and as retribution against its perceived enemies.

They include attacks on Ukraine's power grid; a hack-and-leak effort directed at the political party of French President Emmanuel Macron in the days leading up to the 2017 election; efforts to punish Olympics organizers who had banned Russian athletes for doping, and to impede an investigation into the suspected nerve-agent poisoning of a former spy and his daughter.

The indictment does not charge the defendants in connection with interference in U.S. elections, though the officers are part of the same military intelligence unit that prosecutors say interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by hacking Democratic email accounts. 

The attacks in this case are "some of the most destructive, most costly, most egregious cyber attacks ever known," said Scott Brady, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the 50-page indictment was filed.

"Time and again, Russia has made it clear: They will not abide by accepted norms, and instead, they intend to continue their destructive, destabilizing cyber behaviour," said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.

Timing unrelated to U.S. election, officials say

One of the six charged in the case announced Monday was among the Russian military intelligence officers charged with hacking in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.

The timing of the indictment was unrelated to the upcoming election in the U.S., said Assistant Attorney General John Demers.

He said that despite ongoing warnings of Russian interference in the election, Americans "should be confident that a vote cast for their candidates will be counted for that candidate."

The 50-page indictment, filed in federal court in Pittsburgh, also accuses the hackers of deploying malicious software in 2017 that crippled computers around the globe, including at a Pennsylvania hospital and a pharmaceutical company.

The criminal conspiracy alleged by the Justice Department enables prosecutors to include allegations for victims that are not based in the U.S.

None of the six defendants is currently in custody, but the Justice Department in recent years has eagerly charged foreign hacker in absentia with the goal of creating a message of deterrence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General for the National Security Division John Demers, centre, with FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, left, and FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Pittsburgh field office Michael Christman, announced the charges at the Department of Justice on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via The Associated Press)

"No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously or irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented damage to pursue small tactical advantages and to satisfy fits of spite," said Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Demers, the justice department's top national security official.

He called it "the most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group."

The indictment fleshes out details about hacks that in some instances had already received significant attention for the havoc they had caused.

The controversy known as the "Macron Leaks," for instance, was the leak of over 20,000 emails linked to Macron's campaign in the 2017 election in the days before his victory. The involvement of bots raised questions about the possible involvement of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.

The leaks, which gained huge media attention in France, were shared by WikiLeaks and several alt-right activists on Twitter, Facebook and others.

Olympic organizers, athletes targeted

British officials said Unit 74455 of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency had conducted "cyber reconnaissance" operations against Olympic Games organizers, logistics suppliers and sponsors.

They said the activity included creating fake websites and online accounts posing as key individuals to use in future hacking attempts.

More than 250 athletes' medical records were published and confidential data from some of the world's biggest sports organizations — the Olympics, world track and field, FIFA — were stolen, in what U.S. prosecutors said was retaliation for the doping punishments.

The six Russians are charged with computer hacking in a bid to disrupt the French election, the Winter Olympics and U.S. hospitals and businesses. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via The Associated Press)

"The GRU's actions against the Olympic and Paralympic Games are cynical and reckless. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms," said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

Other Olympic-related organizations were also hit by hackers: the world track and field body, which suspended Russia in 2015 over widespread doping; Canada's anti-doping agency, a trenchant critic of Russia; the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled against some Russian athletes. Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Russia was banned from the world's top sporting events for four years in December over widespread doping offences, including the Tokyo Games, which were originally scheduled for this year, but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With files from Reuters

now