Russian Hacker’s Mysterious Status Raises Concerns of US Cyber Attack

Headlines were made Tuesday when Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., successfully entered the hard drive components of Hunter Biden’s laptop into the Congressional Record.

However, a separate noteworthy occurrence arose from that same House Judiciary Committee hearing during the interview with Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division.

Vorndran fielded questions about Aleksei Burkov, a Russian cybercriminal who was originally sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020, stemming from his alleged participation in a scheme which defrauded Americans of millions of dollars, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

On Tuesday, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, hailed Burkov’s initial capture as a major coup for U.S. law officials. Burkov might be the “most notorious” Russian hacker in history.

Instead of Burkov serving out his full sentence in America, though, U.S. officials deported the cybercriminal back to his native Russia last September.

When pressed on Burkov’s current whereabouts on Tuesday, the FBI’s Vorndran said, “Mr. Burkov was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service, not by the FBI. … I don’t know specifics. What I do know is that there was no swap or concession.”

Back in 2020, Burkov, then 29, pleaded guilty to charges of access device fraud and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, identity theft, wire, and access device fraud and money laundering, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Prosecutors claim Burkov operated a website called Cardplanet. The premise of the $20 million scheme: accessing and selling stolen debit and credit card numbers, along with selling stolen personal data.

Also, prosecutors say Burkov also ran another site where people advertised others’ personal information.

According to NBC News, Burkov was arrested at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in late 2015 and fought extradition to the United States. An Israeli Supreme Court eventually granted Burkov’s extradition to the U.S.

Burkov’s current status has become a source of national interest this week in the wake of Vorndran’s House interview. As part of a written statement, Vorndran wrote, “On Russian cyber threats alone, since the start of the year, the FBI has issued hundreds of intelligence reports.”

Vorndran also wrote, “From a cyber perspective, we would assess that China is our most formidable adversary.”

Entering the sixth week of the Russia-Ukraine war, should the United States — which has publicly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — be on high alert of a major hack? 

And might Burkov play a central role in any future cyber attacks?

Last fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that “current and former officials said they were surprised by Mr. Burkov’s release by U.S. authorities.” 

The WSJ also reported U.S. and Israeli officials viewed Burkov as “widely seen as a valuable asset to Moscow.”

While addressing a business roundtable overseas last week, President Joe Biden acknowledged the possibility of a cyber hack from Russia taking place somewhere in the world.

“The magnitude of Russia’s cyber capacity is fairly consequential, and it’s coming,” warned Biden, according to the Washington Examiner.

Earlier this month, New York City was on “ultra high alert” with possible cyber attacks, according to NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller. 

“The Russian state actor, when tensions rise, increases malicious cyber attacks from both tactical — to disable systems that may be running against them from an adversary — and strategic — to be able to put pressure on other entities, be they allies or people in their interest to disable,” Miller said.

Last year, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority was attacked by cyber hackers, initially raising concerns about the city’s cyber protection.

Citing the Examiner, a DOJ spokesperson said the Bureau of Prisons calculated that Burkov’s imprisonment term should have ended on Aug. 25, 2021 — which syncs up with his deportation to Russia a month later.

The Examiner also alluded to how Burkov was sentenced to nine years in prison, with time served for imprisonment in Israel, after being arrested there in 2015. In other words, his prison sentence in America — even factoring time served in Israel — still wouldn’t have been exhausted in 2021, minus any credits for early release.

So, what happened?

According to the Examiner, neither the DOJ nor Secret Service provided any immediate comments on Burkov’s whereabouts.

Burkov apparently signed a plea agreement in January 2020, after pleading guilty to two parts of a five-count indictment.

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