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US accuses nine Iranians of mass cyber attack on behalf of Tehran

US says group was acting on behalf of Iranian government to steal more than 31 terabytes of academic data and intellectual property
US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein listens to Attorney Geoffrey Berman for the Southern District of New York speaking at a news conference to announce nine Iranians charged with conducting massive cyber theft campaign in Washington (Reuters)

The US on Friday charged nine Iranians and sanctioned an Iranian company with attempting to hack into hundreds of US and international universities, dozens of companies and parts of the US government on behalf of the Iranian government.

The cyber attack stole more than 31 terabytes of academic data and intellectual property from 144 US universities and 176 universities in 21 foreign countries, the US Department of Justice said in a statement.

The US Treasury said on its website that it was placing sanctions on those accused and the Mabna Institute, a company described by US prosecutors as designed to help Iranian research organisations steal information.

Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, called it a "massive and brazen cyber-assault" and "one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted" by US officials.

He said all nine Iranians were believed to be in their own country, but added they could not "hide behind their keyboards half way around the world".

The US deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, said the nine were now "fugitives" and that they may face extradition in more than 100 countries if they travelled outside of Iran.

The hackers conducted "many" of the intrusions "on behalf of" Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, "as well as other Iranian government and university clients", according to the Department of Justice.

"The hackers targeted innovations and intellectual property from our country’s greatest minds," Berman said.

Over the course of four years, prosecutors say, hackers working for the Mabna Institute stole at least 31 terabytes of data from 144 American universities, totalling $3.4bn in intellectual property. The group also cracked into 176 foreign universities, the DOJ said.

The Iranians also hit five US government agencies, including the state governments in Hawaii and Indiana, as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the energy industry, and the Department of Labour.

The group also infiltrated the UN and the UN's Children's Fund, the Department of Justice said.

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