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Man who lived luxury lifestyle after hacking LinkedIn and Dropbox is found guilty

Man who lived luxury lifestyle after hacking LinkedIn and Dropbox is found guilty

A US District court in California has found a Russian hacker guilty of breaking into the networks of LinkedIn, Dropbox, and the now defunct social network Formspring, and selling their user databases on the computer underground.

In October 2016, Yevgeniy Nikulin was arrested at a hotel restaurant in central Prague – an event caught on video camera.

It had been four years since Nikulin had compromised the PC of a LinkedIn employee, and planted malware to steal their access credentials to the professional networking services internal systems.

With his privileged access, Nikulin was able to access LinkedIn’s user database – which included email addresses, usernames, and passwords stored as notoriously weak non-salted SHA1 hashes.

The poor security used by LinkedIn to store its passwords made it simple for them to be cracked, and for hackers to explore whether they would also unlock other online accounts.

High profile victims of the security breach, who had made the mistake of reusing their LinkedIn password elsewhere on the internet, included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, actor Jack Black, and social media influencer Kylie Jenner.

Following the success of his LinkedIn hack, Nikulin was able to turn his attention to other targets. He used details derived from the compromised LinkedIn databases to launch a successful phishing attack against a Dropbox employee – breaking into their account, and gaining access to sensitive data.

Between May and July 2012, Nikulin was able to amass the email addresses and hashed passwords for some 68,680,741 Dropbox accounts.

Unfortunately, Dropbox was apparently unaware of the true scale of the security breach at the time.

In a July 2012 blog post, Dropbox admitted that an undisclosed number of users’ email addresses had been exposed, after some users had complained about receiving spam.

Dropbox took the opportunity to remind users to use unique passwords, and enable two-factor authentication on their accounts.

That’s good advice, but it took another four years, in August 2016, for Dropbox to confirm the size of the breach it had suffered.

It had taken a similar length of time for the true scale of the LinkedIn hack to become public knowledge. At first it was reported that the LinkedIn hack might have compromised 6.5 million user accounts, but – in May 2016 – a grand total of 117 million LinkedIn accounts, alleged to have been obtained from the 2012 hack, were put up for sale on a cybercrime forum.

In the meantime, another website had fallen victim to Nikulin. The Russian hacker successfully phished details from a worker at the now-extinct social network Formspring, which later rebranded itself as Spring.me. With that privileged access, Nikulin is said to have stolen the details of over 30 million users.

Nikulin’s cybercriminal activities had made for an extravagant lifestyle, as ZDNet reports, including expensive watches, European travel, and luxury cars including a Lamborghini Huracan, a Bentley, a Continental GT, and a Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

Following his arrest in the Czech Republic, Nikulin found himself ultimately extradited to the United States to face trial, where a court heard investigators had been able to trace the hacks back to Nikulin via an IP address used during one of the attacks, back to his location in Moscow.

Last week in San Francisco, after just six hours of deliberation by the jury, Nikulin was found guilty.

“Nikulin’s conviction is a warning to would-be hackers, wherever they may be,” said US Attorney David L. Anderson. “Computer hacking is not just a crime, it is a direct threat to the security and privacy of Americans. American law enforcement will respond to that threat regardless of where it originates.”

32-year-old Nikulin is scheduled to be sentenced in September. According to prosecutors, he could face up to 10 years in prison for each count of selling stolen usernames and passwords, installing malware on protected computers.

In addition, Nikulin could be sentenced for up to five years for each count of conspiracy and computer hacking, and faces a mandatory two year sentence for identity theft.

It doesn’t sound like he’ll be sitting down in a Prague restaurant or driving one of his luxury sports cars any time soon.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.