Mueller found that the Russian hacker scheme was dependent on bitcoin, and it may have gotten them caught

Robert MuellerAaron Bernstein/ReutersRobert Mueller.
  • The 12 Russian hackers indicted Friday by the special counsel Robert Mueller allegedly utilized bitcoin to facilitate their scheme.
  • Mueller’s indictment suggests those bitcoin transactions could have helped catch the hackers.

The 12 Russian hackers indicted Friday by the special counsel Robert Mueller utilized bitcoin to facilitate their scheme, according to the indictment.

The indictment suggests those bitcoin transactions contributed to the hackers getting caught.

The indictments against the 12 Russian intelligence officials allege they led a hacking scheme that included stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and top staffers to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, in addition to targeting into state and county Board of Elections websites.

“To hide their connections to Russia and the Russian government, the Conspirators used false identities and made false statements about their identities,” Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, wrote in the indictment. “To further avoid detection, the Conspirators used a network of computers located across the world, including in the United States, and paid for this infrastructure using cryptocurrency.”

The Russians conspired to launder the equivalent of roughly $95,000 through cryptocurrency transactions to help facilitate the purchase of infrastructure the hackers used to conduct their campaign, Mueller alleged. The Russian officials did so to “capitalize on the perceived anonymity” of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

Mueller said the hackers “principally used bitcoin when purchasing servers, registering domains, and otherwise making payments in furtherance of hacking activity.”

“The use of bitcoin allowed the Conspirators to avoid direct relationships with traditional financial institutions, allowing them to evade greater scrutiny of their identities and sources of funds,” Mueller wrote.

Bitcoin transactions are added to the Blockchain, which is a public ledger. But the identities of those parties is only represented by identifiers known as bitcoin addresses. The hackers, Mueller wrote, further sought to obscure their identities by using hundreds of different email addresses to make the transactions. Those emails often contained fictitious names and addresses.

But Mueller dropped a few hints in the indictment as to how the bitcoin transactions may have played a role in the hackers getting caught:

  • For instance, the Russians sometimes made the bitcoin payments on the same computers they used to conduct their hacking campaign, according to the indictment.
  • In addition, one bitcoin account used by the officials was used in 2015 to renew the registration of a domain name encoded in a malware agent that was later installed on the DNC’s network of servers.
  • The indictment said the hackers used bitcoin to pay a Romanian company for the registration of the domain, a site that housed some of the stolen emails.
  • They additionally used bitcoin to lease a Malaysian server that hosted the website.
  • Using funds in a bitcoin address, the Russians also allegedly purchased a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, account to access the @Guccifer_2 Twitter account. @Guccifer_2 was the persona that claimed to be the DNC hacker and was in touch with Trump confidant Roger Stone.
  • And Mueller alleged the Russian nationals used bitcoin to lease the server used to administer the malware implanted on the DNC server network, while leasing two additional servers using bitcoin to hack into the cloud network.

A spokesperson for Mueller declined to comment further on the importance of cryptocurrency to the alleged hacking scheme.

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