WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced criminal charges and sanctions Friday against Iranians accused in a government-sponsored hacking scheme to pilfer sensitive information from hundreds of universities, private companies and American government agencies.
The nine defendants, accused of working at the behest of the Iranian government-tied Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, hacked the computer systems of about 320 universities in the United States and abroad to steal expensive research that was then used or sold for profit, prosecutors said.
The hackers also are accused of breaking into the networks of dozens of government organizations, such as the Department of Labor and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and companies, including law firms and biotechnology corporations.
The Justice Department said the hackers were affiliated with an Iranian company called the Mabna Institute, which prosecutors say contracted since at least 2013 with the Iranian government to steal scientific research from other countries.
"By bringing these criminal charges, we reinforce the norm that most of the civilized world accepts: nation-states should not steal intellectual property for the purpose of giving domestic industries an advantage," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in announcing the charges.
Also Friday, the Treasury Department targeted the Mabna Institute and 10 Iranians — the nine defendants and one charged in a separate case last year — for sanctions.
The defendants are unlikely to ever be prosecuted in an American courtroom since there's no extradition treaty with Iran. But the grand jury indictment — filed in federal court in Manhattan — is part of the government's "name and shame" strategy to publicly identify foreign hackers, block them from traveling without risk of arrest and put their countries on notice.
"People travel. They take vacations, they make plans with their families," said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich. "Having your name, face and description on a 'wanted' poster makes moving freely much more difficult."
According to the indictment, the Iranians broke into universities through relatively simple, but common means — tricking professors to click on compromised links. From there, prosecutors say, they stole roughly 15 billion pages of academic research and intellectual property that was then sent outside the United States for profit.
"Just in case you're wondering, they're not admiring our work," Bowdich said. "They're stealing it, and they're taking credit for it, and they're selling it to others."