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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Russian Hacker Will Cooperate With USA

MANHATTAN (CN) - A Russian man whose malicious code infected NASA computers as it spread to 1 million hard drives around the world has agreed to cooperate with the United States, federal prosecutors say.

Nikita Kuzmin, 25, pleaded guilty 2 years ago to hiring an unnamed computer programmer in 2005 to design the Gozi virus, which collected personal bank information to steal tens of millions of dollars from its victims.

Romanian and Latvian authorities arrested his alleged accomplices: Deniss Calovskis aka "Miami," 27; and Mihai Paunescu aka "Virus," 28, late last year. They are in Latvia and Romania, awaiting extradition.

The indictments against all three men remained under wraps for months before prosecutors unveiled them Wednesday.

Prosecutors would not say during a press conference why they chose to make the case public, but the announcement came after the suicide of an Internet activist led to accusations that the government exaggerates and overprosecutes cybercrime.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara emphasized the threat of online criminals in a statement: "In an information-age update on Willie Sutton, cybercriminals target banks too - 'because that's where the money still is,'" Bharara said.

Bharara said that cybercriminals need "neither a mask nor a gun, but a clever computer program and an Internet connection."

The unsealed indictments allege businesslike conspiracies.

Kuzmin ran an "Internet bazaar for criminals" called the "76 Service," Bharara said.

FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos called 76 Service a "rent-a-virus" that hawked Gozi to spammers for $50,000, plus a cut of the profits.

"Miami" allegedly modified Gozi with code that altered banking websites to make users reveal their confidential information, and "Virus" ran the "bulletproof host" that allowed the spammers to operate without detection.

Users contracted the viruses by opening PDF attachments of spam emails, prosecutors say.

Prosecutors estimated that 40,000 U.S. computers downloaded the virus, but they had no information about its financial toll on U.S. residents.

Kuzmin's cooperation could help reduce his potential 95-year sentence for computer fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy offenses.

If extradited and convicted, Paunescu faces up to 60 years for conspiracy, and Calovskis up to 67 years for those offenses plus conspiracy to commit identity theft.

All three were charged, among other crimes, with violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA.

Critics of the law, signed in 1986, say that it fails to distinguish between civil disobedience and malicious identity theft and espionage.

This controversy resurfaced recently with after the suicide of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, who faced decades in prison under the CFAA for seeking to freely distribute academic articles. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has introduced a bill, "Aaron's Law," to reform the CFAA to prevent online activists from being targeted under the statute.

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