Six Russian intelligence operatives charged in global hacking operation; same group linked to 2016 election

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
·2 min read

Six Russian intelligence officers have been charged in a global computer hacking operation that targeted at least three countries and the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The seven-count indictment unsealed Monday outlined what federal authorities described as the most "disruptive and destructive" effort attributed to a single operation, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, chief of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

Federal authorities said the Russian operatives were associated with the same group, known as the "Sandworm" team of military unit 74455, that was linked to Russia's campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.

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The action Monday does not include charges of election interference in the current United States election, but it does allege that the group sought to disrupt the 2017 elections in France, destabilize the governments of Ukraine and Georgia while attempting to sabotage computer networks supporting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, speaks during a news conference to announce a criminal law enforcement action involving China, at the Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, speaks during a news conference to announce a criminal law enforcement action involving China, at the Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.

Hackers took aim at the Olympics in retaliation for sanctions leveled against Russia for its government-sponsored doping program. The penalties effectively banned Russian athletes from competing under the national flag.

According to federal prosecutors, the Russian officers unleashed a corrupted software system known as "Olympic Destroyer" to disrupt the Winter Games' opening ceremony.

"No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia," Demers said, "wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small tactical advantages and to satisfy fits of spite."

Although Russia had long been suspected in the attacks outlined by prosecutors, Demers said the government's action was not timed to coincide with the upcoming U.S. election.

During the past four years, federal officials said, the Russian hacking team inflicted massive damage, from power outages in Ukraine to disruptions at hospitals and medical facilities in western Pennsylvania.

The Heritage Valley Health System in Pennsylvania, a FedEx Corp. subsidiary and a large U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturer, together reported nearly $1 billion in losses from the attacks.

"Rather than express remorse for the damage they inflicted against victims worldwide, the conspirators callously celebrated their success," Demers said.

The campaign also reached into Great Britain where in 2018 the group sought to undermine the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian military officer, Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal, who was accused of treason as a double agent, attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on Aug. 9, 2006.
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal, who was accused of treason as a double agent, attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on Aug. 9, 2006.

"The FBI has repeatedly warned that Russia is a highly capable cyber adversary, and the information revealed in this indictment illustrates how pervasive and destructive Russia’s cyber activities truly are,” FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 6 Russian intel officers charged in hacking; Winter Olympics targeted