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US charges North Korean computer programmers in global hacks

Federal prosecutors say the computer programmers targeted banks and a movie studio during a broad range of destructive hacks.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has charged three North Korean computer programmers in a broad range of global hacks, including a destructive attack targeting an American movie studio and an extortion scheme aimed at attempting to steal more than $1.3 billion from banks and other financial institutions, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The newly unsealed indictment builds off an earlier criminal case brought in 2018 and adds two additional North Korean defendants. Prosecutors identified all three as members of a North Korean military intelligence agency and said they carried out hacks at the behest of the government with a goal of using stolen funds for the benefit of the regime.

Law enforcement officials say the prosecution underscores the profit-driven motive behind the North Korean criminal hacking model, which sets it apart from a more traditional espionage goal employed by other adversarial nations like Russia, China and Iran. As the U.S. announced its case against the North Koreans, the government is still grappling with an intrusion by Russia of federal agencies and private corporations that officials say was aimed at information-gathering.

None of the three defendants is in American custody, and though officials don't expect them to travel to the U.S. anytime soon for prosecution, the Justice Department finds value in these indictments as a message to hackers that they are not anonymous and can be identified.

At the same time, prosecutors announced a plea deal with a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who investigators say organized the sophisticated laundering of millions of dollars in stolen funds.

Besides naming two additional defendants beyond the original 2018 case, the new case also adds to the list of victims from around the world of hacks carried out by the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

The hackers, according to the indictment, were part of a conspiracy that attempted to steal more than $1.3 billion of money and cryptocurrency from banks and companies; unleashed a sweeping ransomware campaign; and hacks that targeted Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 over a Hollywood movie, “The Interview,” that the North Korean government didn't like.

“As laid out in today’s indictment, North Korea’s operatives, using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world’s leading bank robbers,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official, told reporters.

The case was filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

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