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Putin's Little Hackers

  • Brian Whitmore

And now you work for us. (©Shutterstock)

And now you work for us. (©Shutterstock)

Was it a crackdown on cybercrime? Or was it a recruiting exercise?

In Russia's biggest-ever roundup of hackers, police have arrested 50 members of an alleged cybergang that used malware to heist more than $45 million from banks.

Ruslan Stoyanov, head of computer-incidents investigation at Kaspersky Lab, which assisted the authorities in the case, told Bloomberg that "Russia is tightening its grip on financial hacking."

Well, maybe. I guess that depends on what your definition of "grip" is.

According to a recent report by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia is home to the most skilled community of cybercriminals on the planet, and the Kremlin already has a pretty tight grip on many of them.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the security firm CrowdStrike, has noted that the Russian security services have been increasingly aggressive in recruiting an army of hackers -- often using criminal cases to do so.

"When someone is identified as being technically proficient in the Russian underground," a pending criminal case against them "suddenly disappears and those people are never heard from again," Alperovitch said in an interview late last year with The Hill, adding that the hacker in question is then working for the Russian security services.

"We know that’s going on," Alperovitch added.

Likewise, Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who defected to Great Britain in 1985, noted back in 2008 that hackers were often "offered" the option of working for the state as an alternative to prison.

In other words, it would probably be a good idea to see what happens with those 50 hackers Russian law enforcement just nabbed.

Because, as Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at security-research firm Trend Micro, told The Hill, Russian cybercriminals "that used to hunt banks eight hours a day" are often turned by the authorities.

And before you know it, they are "turning their guns on NATO and government targets" and "willingly operating as cybermilitias" for the Kremlin.

Due to the concentration of highly skilled hackers in Russia, Moscow clearly sees cyberwarfare as an asymmetrical tool it can deploy in its ongoing conflict with the West.

Recent targets of hacking attacks that some Western intelligence services believe originated in Russia include a French television network, a German steelmaker, the Warsaw Stock Exchange, the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. State Department, and The New York Times.

And in a report citing unidentified Western intelligence officials, Bloomberg reported that Russian hackers have stepped up surveillance of essential infrastructure, including power grids and energy supply networks in the United States, Europe, and Canada.

So if this case, which the Interior Ministry announced with great fanfare on its website, fades into the bureaucratic ether, then it probably isn't too far-fetched to assume that these high-profile busts were just another talent search by the Kremlin's headhunters.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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