The Trump administration on Friday announced sanctions and criminal indictments against an alleged Iranianhacker network it claimed was involved in "one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns" ever prosecuted by the United States, targeting hundreds of USA and foreign universities, as well as dozens of U.S. companies and government agencies, and the United Nations.
The two founders of the Mabna Institute, Gholamreza Rafatnejad, 38, and Ehsan Mohammadi, 37, were among the nine Iranians indicted in NY and whose assets are subject to USA seizure.
Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has alleged that the Iranian hackers breached university computer systems and stole intellectual property and other research.
"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 goal of giving domestic industries an advantage", said Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general.
Authorities "will aggressively investigate and prosecute hostile actors who attempt to profit from America's ideas by infiltrating our computer systems and stealing intellectual property", he said at a news conference.
None of the defendants were in custody, but they were all put on USA sanctions lists along with the Mabna Institute itself.
The hackers, said the Justice Department, targeted hundreds of universities along with private companies and government agencies. US -based universities alone spent an estimated $3.4 billion to acquire or gain access to this data.
The email accounts of more than 100,000 university professors worldwide were targeted, Berman said, and about 8,000 accounts were compromised.
US charges nine Iranians suspected of hacking universities
"These allegations against employees of an Iranian IT company are groundless and merely reflect the USA government's resentment of Iran", he said.
USA authorities believe that the cyber attacks have been state-sponsored, to the extent of being one of the largest state-sponsored hacking sprees to be prosecuted. The Mabna Institute also contracted with Iranian governmental and private entities to conduct hacking activities on its behalf. They are thought to be in Iran, a nation that does not have extradition agreements with the U.S.
Last week, the administration accused the Russian government of cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the US power grid. These links were in fact to a site on "a malicious Internet domain named to appear confusingly similar to the authentic domain of the recipient professor's university", the indictment states.
The Treasury Department also placed sanctions on another Iranian, Behzad Mesri. The goal was to steal credentials and use them to acquire academic data the victims had access to.
The indictment was the latest effort in a years-long strategy by the U.S. to name hackers it believes are working for foreign governments.
At U of I, Iranian enrollment has jumped in recent years.