Are Hackers for Hire the Future of Global Terrorism?
On Tuesday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Three Former U.S. Intelligence Community and Military Personnel that had been found to have been selling their services related to hacking to foreign governments entered into a deferred prosecution agreement.
The agreement restricts their future activities and employment and fines them a total of $1,685,000 in penalties to resolve a Department of Justice investigation regarding violations of U.S. export control, computer fraud and access device fraud laws.
The three individuals in question, Americans Marc Baier, 49, Ryan Adams, 34, and a former U.S. citizen, Daniel Gericke, 40, were all former employees of either the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) or the U.S. military.
According to the DOJ press release announcing the actions:
“the defendants worked as senior managers at a United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)-based company (U.A.E. CO) that supported and carried out computer network exploitation (CNE) operations (i.e., “hacking”) for the benefit of the U.A.E government between 2016 and 2019. Despite being informed on several occasions that their work for U.A.E. CO, under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), constituted a “defense service” requiring a license from the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), the defendants proceeded to provide such services without a license.
These services included the provision of support, direction and supervision in the creation of sophisticated “zero-click” computer hacking and intelligence gathering systems – i.e., one that could compromise a device without any action by the target. U.A.E. CO employees whose activities were supervised by and known to the defendants thereafter leveraged these zero-click exploits to illegally obtain and use access credentials for online accounts issued by U.S. companies, and to obtain unauthorized access to computers, like mobile phones, around the world, including in the United States.”
The prosecutions are significant, due to recent shifts in power within the volatile Middle Eastern region as a result of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and the implications of these events globally.
There have been several instances of terror inspired hacking incidents that were state sponsored occurring in greater frequency over the past several years. In particular, countries that include Iran, China and Russia have invested heavily in entities that are often defined as Advanced Persistent Threats or APTs.
The hack leveraged the same attack vector (malicious code hidden in a popular software update) that was later used in the infamous SolarWinds hack that still has security personnel scrambling to access exposure and damages.
Terrorist groups have previously attempted to create modernized hacking operations only to see those efforts partially thwarted, but with the Taliban’s recent acquisition of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to potentially monetize, the chances of them quickly ramping up their terror hacking capabilities has certainly multiplied.
This makes the Justice Department’s attempt to dissuade US trained individuals from selling their knowledge to our enemies a significant development. Although it is a positive first step, there is one major limitation to the scope of these kinds of prosecutions.
That is the fact that Americans always have the option of renouncing their citizenship once they land on foreign soil. This gives an advantage to well-funded, Anti-American governments that may be able to entice individuals and offer them asylum and protection from prosecution.
By offering far more than a government, or even most American contractors are willing to pay, well-funded enemy belligerents may be able to buy off some of the countries best and brightest in an effort to carry out their nefarious plans.
And it certainly is not without precedent. During the rise of the Narco State in Columbia during the 1990’s, some of the world’s most prominent chemists were contracted by drug cartels to manipulate cocaine in an effort to make the drug less detectable and easier to transport globally.
The United States after WW2 also seized upon the some of the world’s premier engineers after the fall of Nazi Germany and immediately put them to work for America.
The bottom line is greedy individuals with skill and a lack of scruples can easily be influenced to do the bidding of whoever is willing to provide protection and the largest salary. This makes it imperative that the United States and our allies create an atmosphere that our top cyber professionals will never want to walk away from.
Julio Rivera is a business and political strategist, the Editorial Director for Reactionary Times, and a political commentator and columnist. His writing, which is focused on cybersecurity and politics, has been published by websites including Newsmax, Townhall, American Thinker and BizPacReview.