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Russian Hacker Arrested In Spain Over US Election Hacking

Spanish police have arrested a Russian programmer following US allegations of large-scale hacking.

A Russian computer hacker arrested over the weekend in Barcelona was apparently detained for his role in a massive computer botnet, and not for last year’s US presidential election hack as reported by the Russian media.

Peter Severa’s spam operation ran a sophisticated, evolving family of computer viruses called Waledac and later Kelihos, developed in part by a former military engineer also living in St. Petersburg named Andrei N. Sabelnikov, according to a 2012 American court filing by Microsoft.

As suspected earlier, Levashov, also known as Peter Severa, is the same man who has also been listed in the World’s Top 10 Worst Spammers maintained by anti-spam group Spamhaus, which has given him the 7th position in the list.

Mr. Levashov is subject to a US international arrest warrant and a Spanish court will hear whether he can be extradited. Much of his alleged activity involved ransomware – blocking a computer’s access to certain information and demanding a ransom for its release.

Image Credit: Dave
Image Credit: Dave

The NYT adds that computer researchers who have linked the long-running computer spam business of the man known as Peter Severa to malware used in 2012 to influence a domestic election in Russia to say his arrest could give other investigations important information.

Levashov was arrested in Barcelona, where he had been vacationing with his family, according to a report on RT, a state-owned Russian television network. The report cited his wife, who said the Spanish police had detained Mr. Levashov at the request of the American authorities.

Levashov’s wife Maria was quoted by RT as saying that her husband was arrested by armed police at their apartment in Barcelona. She said her husband told her he had been accused of creating a computer virus “linked to (President Donald) Trump’s election win.”

However, Agence France-Presse news agency quoted a source close to the matter in Washington as saying that Mr. Levashov’s detention was “not tied to anything involving allegations of Russian interference with the US election”.

A US intelligence report released in January alleged that Vladimir Putin had tried to help Mr. Trump to victory, allegations strongly denied the Russian president. Mr. Trump later commented that the outcome of the election had not been affected.

 The court filing and related forensic work on the Kelihos virus illustrated how criminal hacker tools are repurposed for political ends. The filing identified Mr. Sabelnikov as the designer of the Kelihos virus. The Kelihos virus, which had been devised to spread spam, was used during the Russian election in 2012 to send political messages to email accounts on computers with Russian I.P. addresses.
The emails linked to fake news stories saying that Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the businessman running for president against Vladimir V. Putin, had come out as gay.
Levashov has been charged with wire fraud and unauthorized interception of electronic communications. The government is now seeking his extradition to the United States.
Even if Levashov’s arrest is linked to the alleged US election hacking, it may come at an awkward moment, just as Trump’s foreign policy U-turn stands to alienate the Kremlin and bring any “detente” momentum between DC and Moscow to a grinding halt.  It is also unclear how “hacking” via spam may have influenced potential voters’ choices.



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