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Inside the FBI, Russia, and Ukraine’s failed cybercrime investigation

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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.”

A maddening mixture of corruption, rivalry, and stonewalling had left Operation Trident Breach without its top targets.

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.”

Well-connected criminals

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.

“It came down to D-Day, and we got ghosted.”

Jim Craig

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.

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Audio Postcard: Real-time farming

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Audio Postcard: Real-time farming


Pinot Grigio actually makes a white wine and it’s won a few varieties in California that, uh, is a pretty common variety that actually we make purple grapes that make a white wine. So my name is Dirk Heuvel and I’m the VP of vineyard operations here at McManis family vineyards. 

My family actually kind of set roots here, actually farming almonds. And some people say almonds, we say in Ripon, and we say, say, almonds. 

I feel like, if it was like my dad or my grandpa trying to adopt this technology, absolutely. I think there’d be a huge culture shock there for them. I still think they don’t quite understand it, but they’re seeing the results of it. So I think that’s the most important thing—that we’re able to show them that it is working and how it’s working for us.

I will say today, I feel that we’re growing better quality grapes than we were 30 years ago. Just adapting a lot of this aerial imagery, modern irrigation technology, running drip system technology, you know, being able to fertilize through drip systems. And you can actually look at the imaging on your phone and you can actually pinpoint go out and walk to a specific vine. You know, that might be a   vine that died, that shows up on the aerial imaging. You can use the technology and, and walk right into a specific area. Just being able to identify areas, you know, using GPS. We can have field checkers go through the field now and on their app, they’re able to actually drop and pinpoint where we might have mite issues where we might have, you know, leafhopper issues, areas that need to get treated. And that actually allows us to go through and just cite specific treat. Instead of treating an entire vineyard block, we’re able to just treat specific areas.

Jennifer: It was only what like five, seven years ago, it was half of farm workers weren’t using smartphones. 

Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. 

Jennifer: So, if people are dropping pins that’s…

Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. You know, 30 years ago, in order to make a phone call, you’d have to drive in a, in a town or go to your house to call your irrigator to do stuff. And now it’s, this is almost, it’s like real time farming. Now we can make decisions on the fly. And one of the big advantages to using variable rate applications is that you’re only applying the amount of nutrients or amendments that are needed for a specific area. So before we adapted this variable rate technology, we would drive down a row and we would put a consistent amount of amendments, whether it be gypsum, lime, soil, sulfur, we would apply that amount evenly throughout the entire vineyard block. Now we realize going through and using this variable rate technology is that we might cut the, the amendments that are needed by 20 to 30% on a specific vineyard block, just by applying the correct amounts of nutrients where they’re needed and not overlying where they’re not needed 

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The Download: dual-driving AI, and Russia’s Telegram propaganda

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🧠


This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

The news: Wayve, a driverless-car startup based in London, has made a machine-learning model that can drive two different types of vehicle: a passenger car and a delivery van. It is the first time the same AI driver has learned to drive multiple vehicles.

Why it matters: While robotaxis have made it to a handful of streets in Phoenix and San Francisco, their success has been limited. Wayve is part of a new generation of startups ditching the traditional robotics mindset—where driverless cars rely on super-detailed 3D maps and modules for sensing and planning. Instead, these startups rely entirely on AI to drive the vehicles.

What’s next: The advance suggests that Wayve’s approach to autonomous vehicles, in which a deep-learning model is trained to drive from scratch, could help it scale up faster than its leading rivals. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Putin’s propaganda: When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Opposing forces: Following the announcement, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind Putin’s plans, eager to promote the idea that the war he is waging is just and winnable.  But whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and offering support for those seeking to dodge the draft. Read the full story.

—Chris Stokel-Walker

NASA’s DART mission is on track to crash into an asteroid today

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, is on course to collide with the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm ET today. Though Dimorphos is not about to collide with Earth, DART is intended to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid like it that is headed our way, should one ever be discovered.

Read more about the DART mission, and how the crash is likely to play out.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US says Russia will face catastrophe if it uses nuclear weapons
It’s hard to know whether Putin’s threat is a bluff—or deadly serious. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks it is very real. (CNBC)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)

2 YouTube wants to lure creators away from TikTok with cash
But it won’t say how much. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Germany’s zero-tolerance for hate speech is a double-edged sword
While the threat of fines disincentivizes some perpetrators, activists worry that too many people are being targeted. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation is already shaping US voters’ decisions ahead of November’s midterms. (NYT $)

4 Why even the largest companies are vulnerable to hacking
A zero-trust approach is helpful, but will only take you so far. (WSJ $)
+ Hackers can disrupt image-recognition systems using radio waves. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft is optimistic that AI can root out bad actors. (Bloomberg $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NASA’s Artemis moon mission has been delayed again
Due to tropical storm Ian. (BBC)
+ Saudi Arabia wants to send its first female astronaut into space. (Insider $)

6 Fighting climate change extends beyond kicking corporations
A more nuanced approach could be required to speed up the transition to cleaner energy. (The Atlantic $)
+ Global wildfires mean that snow is melting quicker than usual. (Slate $)
+ Disaster insurance is increasingly tricky to navigate. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Crypto’s fired workers don’t know what to do next
But plenty of them haven’t let their experiences put them off the sector. (The Information $)
+ Interpol has issued a red notice for Terraform Labs’ co-founder Do Kwon. (Bloomberg $) 

8 The Danish city that banned Google
The tech giant’s handling of children’s data wasn’t properly assessed. (Wired $)
+ Google says it’s unwilling to pitch it to fund network costs in Europe. (Reuters)

9 Why neuroscience is making a comeback
Some experts are convinced that making neurology and psychiatry departments work closer together is long overdue. (Economist $)

10 How plant-based meat fell out of fashion 🍔
Evangelists are convinced the nascent industry is merely experiencing teething problems. (The Guardian)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”

—Taryn Langer, founder of public relations firm Moxie Communications Group, tells the New York Times about her frustrations at the sexist state of the tech industry.

The big story

The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health

August 2021

Scientists have struggled in their search for specific genes behind most brain disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike problems with some other parts of our body, the vast majority of brain disorder presentations are not linked to an identifiable gene.

But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells? 

The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but more researchers have begun to take it seriously. Scientists already knew that the 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain work to some extent in concert—but what they want to know is whether there is a risk when some of those cells might be singing a different genetic tune. Read the full story.

—Roxanne Khamsi

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Some gadgets are definitely more useful than others.
+ Calling all cat lovers! This potted history of mischievous felines in French painter Alexandre-François Desportes’ work is heartwarming stuff (thanks Melissa!)
+ A useful guide to working out what you really want from life
+ A Ukrainian startup is reportedly planning to use AI to clone the iconic voice of James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader. 
+ The rumors are true—butter really is having a moment.



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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles


Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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