New US sanctions against Iranian nationals provocative act: Iran

The Trump administration on Friday sanctioned nine Iranian nationals and one entity, officials say for hacking into hundreds of universities and stealing massive amounts of data and intellectual property.

The defendants were involved in various capacities with the Mabna Institute, a company based in Iran that, according to the Justice Department, has been coordinating cyberattacks to steal academic data and credentials on behalf of the government of Iran.

The US Treasury Department said on Friday that the parties have connections to the Iranian government, and that their assets in the US will be frozen.

According to the Justice Department, the group breached computer systems at 144 American universities and 176 universities in 21 other countries, 47 American and foreign companies, the US Department of Labour, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the State of Hawaii, the State of in and the United Nations.

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According to the indictments, the defendants were affiliated with Iran's Mabna Institute, an Iran-based company that, since at least 2013, has helped Iranian universities and research organizations hack into and steal scientific resources from foreign countries and institutions.

US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the nine Iranians were considered fugitives who may face extradition in more than 100 countries if they travel outside Iran.

"These allegations against employees of an Iranian IT company are groundless and merely reflect the U.S. government's resentment of Iran", he said.

It described the conspiracy as one of the largest state-sponsored hacking sprees prosecuted. The hack, which the US claims was carried out on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stole research, academic and proprietary data as well as intellectual property. They are the state governments of Hawaii and Indiana, Indiana's Department of Education, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Labor.

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The hackers allegedly targeted at least 1,00,000 email accounts of university professors and researchers while several thousand accounts were compromised. First, the attackers searched the field of interest and the articles published by their targets, then sent spoofed emails appearing to be from other professors interested in the same areas of research. But once clicked on, the links steered the professors to a malicious Internet domain that led them to believe they'd been logged out of their systems and that asked them to enter their log-in credentials. He said the indictments highlight the need for organizations to harden their cybersecurity defenses and send a message to others that the U.S. will take steps to protect its interests. The hacked materials were in turn sold on two Iranian websites: Megapaper.ir, which sold the papers, and Gigapeper.ir, which sold academics' account login information so that customers could sign into academic libraries.

The Treasury Department also placed sanctions on another Iranian, Behzad Mesri.

The Mabna Institute employed hackers-for-hire and other contract personnel to conduct intrusions and steal academic data, intellectual property, and email inboxes through spear-phishing and other hacking tactics.

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