Inside the FBI, Russia, and Ukraine’s failed cybercrime investigation
He thought back to reports from just a few hours earlier, when the Ukrainian surveillance team said they were tracking Tank and had intelligence that the suspect had been at home recently. None of it seemed believable.
Five individuals were detained in Ukraine on that night, but when it came to Tank, who police alleged was in charge of the operation, they left empty-handed. And none of the five people arrested in Ukraine stayed in custody for long.
Somehow, the operation in Ukraine—a two-year international effort to catch the biggest cybercriminals on the FBI’s radar—had gone sideways. Tank had slipped away while under SBU surveillance, while the other major players deftly avoided serious consequences for their crimes. Craig and his team were livid.
But if the situation in Ukraine was frustrating, things were even worse in Russia, where the FBI had no one on the ground. Trust between the Americans and Russians had never been very strong. Early in the investigation, the Russians had waved the FBI off Slavik’s identity.
“They try to push you off target,” Craig says. “But we play those games knowing what’s going to happen. We’re very loose with what we send them anyway, and even if you know something, you try to push it to them to see if they’ll cooperate. And when they don’t—oh, no surprise.”
Even so, while the raids happened in Donetsk, the Americans hoped they would get a call from Russia about an FSB raid on the residence of Aqua, the money launderer Maksim Yakubets. Instead, there was silence.
The operation had its successes—dozens of lower-level operators were arrested across Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom, including some of Tank’s personal friends who helped move stolen money out of England. But a maddening mixture of corruption, rivalry, and stonewalling had left Operation Trident Breach without its top targets.
“It came down to D-Day, and we got ghosted,” Craig says. “The SBU tried to communicate with [the Russians]. The FBI was making phone calls to the embassy in Moscow. It was complete silence. We ended up doing the operation anyway, without the FSB. It was months of silence. Nothing.”
Not everyone in the SBU drives a BMW.
After the raids, some Ukrainian officials, who were unhappy with the corruption and leaks happening within the country’s security services, concluded that the 2010 Donetsk raid against Tank and the Jabber Zeus crew failed because of a tip from a corrupt SBU officer named Alexander Khodakovsky.
At the time, Khodakovsky was the chief of an SBU SWAT unit in Donetsk known as Alpha team. It was the same group that led the raids for Trident Breach. He also helped coordinate law enforcement across the region, which allowed him to tell suspects in advance to prepare for searches or destroy evidence, according to the former SBU officer who spoke to MIT Technology Review anonymously.
When Russia and Ukraine went to war in 2014, Khodakovsky defected. He became a leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which NATO says receives financial and military aid from Moscow.
The problem wasn’t just one corrupt officer, though. The Ukrainian investigation into—and legal proceedings against—Tank and his crew continued after the raids. But they were carefully handled to make sure he stayed free, the former SBU officer explains.
“Through his corrupt links among SBU management, Tank arranged that all further legal proceedings against him were conducted by the SBU Donetsk field office instead of SBU HQ in Kyiv, and eventually managed to have the case discontinued there,” the former officer says. The SBU, FBI, and FSB did not respond to requests for comment.
Tank, it emerged, was deeply entangled with Ukrainian officials linked to Russia’s government—including Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014.
Yanukovych’s youngest son, Viktor Jr., was the godfather to Tank’s daughter. Yanukovych Jr. died in 2015 when his Volkswagen minivan fell through the ice on a lake in Russia, and his father remains in exile there after being convicted of treason by a Ukrainian court.
When Yanukovych fled east, Tank moved west to Kyiv, where he is believed to represent some of the former president’s interests, along with his own business ventures.
“Through this association with the president’s family, Tank managed to develop corrupt links into the top tiers of Ukrainian government, including law enforcement,” the SBU officer explains.
Ever since Yanukovych was deposed, Ukraine’s new leadership has turned more decisively toward the West.
“The reality is corruption is a major challenge to stopping cybercrime, and it can go up pretty high,” Passwaters says. “But after more than 10 years working with Ukrainians to combat cybercrime, I can say there are plenty of really good people in the trenches silently working on the right side of this fight. They are key.”
Warmer relations with Washington were a major catalyst for the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Now, as Kyiv tries to join NATO, one of the conditions of membership is eliminating corruption. The country has lately cooperated with Americans on cybercrime investigations to a degree that would have been unimaginable in 2010. But corruption is still widespread.
“Ukraine overall is more active in combating cybercrime in recent years,” says the former SBU officer. “But only when we see criminals really getting punished would I say that the situation has changed at its root. Now, very often we see public relations stunts that do not result in cybercriminals’ ceasing their activities. Announcing some takedowns, conducting some searches, but then releasing everyone involved and letting them continue operating is not a proper way of tackling cybercrime.”
And Tank’s links to power have not gone away. Enmeshed with the powerful Yanukovych family, which is itself closely aligned with Russia, he remains free.
A looming threat
On June 23, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov was quoted as saying his agency would work with the Americans to track down criminal hackers. It didn’t take long for two particular Russian names to come up.
Even after the 2010 raids took down a big chunk of his business, Bogachev continued to be a prominent cybercrime entrepreneur. He put together a new crime ring called the Business Club; it soon grew into a behemoth, stealing more than $100 million that was divided among its members. The group moved from hacking bank accounts to deploying some of the first modern ransomware, with a tool called CryptoLocker, by 2013. Once again, Bogachev was at the center of the evolution of a new kind of cybercrime.
Around the same time, researchers from the Dutch cybersecurity firm Fox-IT who were looking closely at Bogachev’s malware saw that it was not just attacking targets at random. The malware was also quietly looking for information on military services, intelligence agencies, and police in countries including Georgia, Turkey, Syria, and Ukraine—close neighbors and geopolitical rivals to Russia. It became clear that he wasn’t just working from inside Russia, but his malware actually hunted for intelligence on Moscow’s behalf.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”