A Russian man has pleaded guilty to offering a Tesla worker $1 million to cripple the electric car firm’s plant in Nevada with ransomware in an extortion scheme
RENO, Nev. — A Russian man has pleaded guilty in the U.S. to offering a Tesla worker $1 million to cripple the electric car firm’s massive electric battery plant in Nevada with ransomware and steal company secrets for extortion, prosecutors and court documents stated.
His court-appointed federal public defender, Chris Frey, declined Friday to comment.
Prosecutors alleged that Kriuchkov acted on behalf of co-conspirators abroad and tried to use face bribery to recruit an insider to physically plant ransomware, which scrambles data on targeted networks and can only be unlocked using a software key supplied by the attackers. Normally, ransomware gangs working from safe havens hack victim networks on the internet and download data before activating the ransomware.
“The fact that this kind of risk was taken could, perhaps, imply that this was an intelligence operation directed at obtaining information as opposed to an extortion operation geared toward obtaining money,” explained Brett Callow, a cybersecurity analyst in anti-virus applications firm Emsisoft.
“It’s also possible that the criminals thought the gamble was worth it decided to roll the dice,” Callow said.
Charles Carmakal, chief technical officer in cybersecurity firm FireEye, agreed. “You might have possibly done it in thousands of miles away without risking any asset,” he explained.
The FBI said the unnamed potential recruit informed Tesla and cooperated with the FBI, and the plot was stopped before any damage happened.
Kriuchkov, 27, told a judge in September that he understood the Russian government was conscious of his case. But prosecutors and the FBI haven’t alleged ties to the Kremlin. Kriuchkov is in federal custody at the Washoe County prison in Reno.
His guilty plea to conspiracy to intentionally cause damage to a protected computer might have gotten him up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But he’s expected to face no more than 10 months under conditions of his written plea agreement.
He has been in custody for seven months, since his arrest in August in Los Angeles. Federal police said he was heading to an airport to fly out of the country.
“The speedy response of the company and the FBI prevented a significant exfiltration of the victim company’s information and stopped the extortion scheme at its beginning,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas McQuaid said in a statement. “This case highlights the importance of businesses coming forward to law enforcement, and the positive results when they do this.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has acknowledged his firm was the target of what he predicted a critical attempt to collect business secrets. Tesla has a huge mill near Reno which makes batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage units. Company representatives did not immediately react Friday to messages.
Court records say Kriuchkov was in the USA for over five weeks last July and August on a Russian passport and a tourist visa when he attempted to sponsor an employee of what was identified as”Company A” to install applications enabling a computer hack.
The worker, who was no recognized, was to get payments in the electronic cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
Some were identified in a criminal complaint by nicknames such as Kisa and Pasha, and a individual has been identified as Sasha Skarobogatov.
It was not clear from court documents if money changed hands.
In court documents, Kriuchkov was quoted saying the inside job could be camouflaged with a distributed denial of service attack on plant computers from outside. Such attacks overwhelm servers with junk traffic. If Tesla did not pay, the purloined data would be dumped on the open internet.
The documents also said Kriuchkov claimed to the prospective recruit he had executed similar”special projects” on other businesses on multiple events, with a single victim allegedly surrendering a $4 million ransom payment.