Trial of Accused Russian Hacker on Thin Ice With Judge

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As the criminal trial of Yevgeniy Nikulin wrapped its second day of testimony, prosecutors closed in on — but didn’t quite pinpoint — the culprit behind the corporate hacks of LinkedIn, Dropbox, and Formspring in 2012, drawing skepticism from the federal judge overseeing the case.

“So far there’s no evidence in the case that this defendant did it,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said Tuesday morning before calling in the jury. “There’s evidence that someone in Russia did it. But there’s no evidence that this defendant is the one that broke in.”

On Monday, the government presented evidence that all three company databases were breached by someone whose IP address originated in Russia. 

Nikulin is accused of breaching company databases and stealing more than 100 million user passwords. He was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2016 and extradited to the U.S. in 2018 to face nine criminal counts of computer intrusion, causing damage to a protected computer, aggravated identity theft, trafficking, and conspiracy.

On Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Kane called on FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Miller to tighten the net around Nikulin. 

Miller explained how with the cooperation of the Russian Federation, he traced the Russian IP addresses to Nikulin’s residence on Kantemirovskaya Street in Moscow.

This was the strongest piece of evidence the jury has heard against Nikulin.

Miller also talked the jury through voluminous spreadsheets documenting the various corporate intrusions, with logins showing the same person had accessed those companies under the email account chinabig01@gmail.com. 

Miller said at the time he “did not yet know who the true owner of the account was.” 

Prosecutors believe Nikulin was behind that account.

The prosecution also connected the Kantemirovskaya Street address to Nikulin through a transcript of a jailhouse phone call between Nikulin and two friends in 2018. Nikulin is identified as Zhenya in the transcript, a diminutive for Yevgeniy.

According to the transcript translated from Russian, the two friends ask Zhenya to send a letter to Kantemirovskaya Street so they can write him back using the return address.

“I can send a letter to Kantemirovskaya Street,” Zhenya said.

A male speaker identified as Sasha replied, “Send a letter to Kantemirovskaya St. of course. We’ll have the address.”

Kane also read aloud transcripts of a phone call between Zhenya and his girlfriend, identified as Anya, in which Zhenya tells her, “I hacked websites 24/7.” 

“You hacked websites?” Anya asked.

“I hack websites,” Zhenya replied, laughing.

He later added, “I want to hack the prison here,” again, laughing. “I want to hack the prison. The rules here are stupid.”

On cross-examination, a Russian interpreter said words in Russian can have multiple English meanings, and the Russian word for “hack” is similar to a word that means “break something into pieces.”

“You had no way to tell if he has a strange sense of humor and was making a joke here?” Nikulin’s defense lawyer Valery Nechay asked, to which the interpreter replied, “Correct.”

Another set of transcripts showed Nikulin repeatedly asking an unidentified male speaker to send him magazines on computers, technology, girls or anything regarding “what happens in the modern world.” He seemed obsessed with reading about computers and lamented the lack of internet access in prison.

The magazine conversations drew a stern rebuke from Alsup, who questioned their probative value.

Concerned that prosecutors were trying draw an inference of guilt from Nikulin’s imprisonment, Alsup admonished the jury not to consider the reference to prison in the transcripts as evidence.

“Why did you possibly want that in evidence other than to prejudice the defendant?” Alsup asked Kane after dismissing the jury for the day.

“There was a consistent theme throughout the calls of the defendant’s interest in high-tech topics and computers,” she said.

“Then point the finger of guilt at a million people on Earth. If that’s evidence of guilt, God help us in this country. That’s terrible,” Alsup said. “I think it’s going to backfire on you. The jury is going to say, what case does the government have if that’s what they resort to? You may end up losing this case because of stunts like that.”

Alsup said both sides should be prepared to give closing arguments Wednesday, though Kane said she’s only halfway through with questioning Miller. But the judge seemed less than dazzled by Miller’s testimony.

“I don’t see a lot of evidence this particular defendant did this. Maybe the scales will fall from my eyes when I hear your brilliant summation,” he said.

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