A Russian court has handed down lengthy prison terms for two men convicted on treason charges for allegedly sharing information about Russian cybercriminals with U.S. law enforcement officials. The men — a former Russian cyber intelligence official and an executive at Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab — were reportedly prosecuted for their part in an investigation into Pavel Vrublevsky, a convicted cybercriminal who ran one of the world’s biggest spam networks and was a major focus of my 2014 book, Spam Nation.
Sergei Mikhailov, formerly deputy chief of Russia’s top anti-cybercrime unit, was sentenced today to 22 years in prison. The court also levied a 14-year sentence against Ruslan Stoyanov, a senior employee at Kaspersky Lab. Both men maintained their innocence throughout the trial.
Following their dramatic arrests in 2016, many news media outlets reported that the men were suspected of having tipped off American intelligence officials about those responsible for Russian hacking activities tied to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That’s because two others arrested for treason at the same time — Mikhailov subordinates Georgi Fomchenkov and Dmitry Dokuchaev — were reported by Russian media to have helped the FBI investigate Russian servers linked to the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The case against Fomchenkov and Dokuchaev has not yet gone to trial.
What exactly was revealed during the trial of Mikhailov and Stoyanov is not clear, as the details surrounding it were classified. But according to information first reported by KrebsOnSecurity in January 2017, the most likely explanation for their prosecution stemmed from a long-running grudge held by Pavel Vrublevsky, a Russian businessman who ran a payment firm called ChronoPay and for years paid most of the world’s top spammers and virus writers to pump malware and hundreds of billions of junk emails into U.S. inboxes.
In 2013, Vrublevsky was convicted of hiring his most-trusted spammer and malware writer to launch a crippling distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against one of his company’s chief competitors.
Prior to Vrublevsky’s conviction, massive amounts of files and emails were taken from Vrublevsky’s company and shared with this author. Those included spreadsheets chock full of bank account details tied to some of the world’s most active cybercriminals, and to a vast network of shell corporations created by Vrublevsky and his co-workers to help launder the proceeds from their various online pharmacy, spam and fake antivirus operations.
In a telephone interview with this author in 2011, Vrublevsky said he was convinced that Mikhailov was taking information gathered by Russian government cybercrime investigators and feeding it to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Vrublevsky told me then that if ever he could prove for certain Mikhailov was involved in leaking incriminating data on ChronoPay, he would have someone “tear him a new asshole.”
An email that Vrublevsky wrote to a ChronoPay employee in 2010 eerily presages the arrests of Mikhailov and Stoyanov, voicing Vrublevsky’s suspicion that the two were closely involved in leaking ChronoPay emails and documents that were seized by Mikhailov’s own division. A copy of that email is shown in Russian in the screen shot below. A translated version of the message text is available here (PDF).
Predictably, Vrublevsky has taken to gloating on Facebook about today’s prison’s sentences, calling them “good news.” He told the Associated Press that Mikhailov had abused his position at the FSB to go after Internet entrepreneurs like him and “turn them into cybercriminals,” thus “whipping up cyber hysteria around the world.”
This is a rather rich quote, as Vrublevsky was already a well-known and established cybercriminal long before Mikhailov came into his life. Also, I would not put it past Vrublevsky to have somehow greased the wheels of this prosecution.
As I noted in Spam Nation, emails leaked from ChronoPay suggest that Vrublevsky funneled as much as $1 million to corrupt Russian political leaders for the purpose of initiating a criminal investigation into Igor Gusev, a former co-founder of ChronoPay who went on to create a pharmacy spam operation that closely rivaled Vrublevsky’s own pharmacy spam operation — Rx Promotion.