Haaretz Exclusive

No Kremlin Link Found to Russian Hacker Awaiting Extradition in Israel, Lead Investigator Says

Aleksey Burkov was one of the world's 100 leading hackers, but he did it only for the money, Secret Service special agent says

Aleksey Burkov, being detained by Israeli police officers.
Courtesy of News Channel 13, Reshet

The U.S. Secret Service did not find any links between Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov and Russian intelligence, or any other government officials, the special agent who led the investigation, Erik Rasmussen, told Haaretz. Burkov’s name never came up in security contexts, or in Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, Rasmussen said. Burkov, 29, from St. Petersburg, is awaiting extradition to the United States, where he is wanted on several counts of fraud, identity theft, computer hacking and money laundering. He was detained in Israel in December 2015, close to a year before President Donald Trump's election.

It is quite common to accuse a Russian hacker of having connections with the Kremlin, but the cases in which such connections really exist are unusual, said Rasmussen. The Americans want him because he's a major figure in cyber crimes, and his arrest was one of the most important coups for the secret service in recent years, he added. Rasmussen also called Burkov one of the 100 leading hackers in the world.

Moscow has been pressing Israel to agree to a deal in which Naama Issachar, a dual Israeli and American citizen who was sentenced last week to seven and a half years in a Russian prison for smuggling 9.6 grams of hashish, would be freed in return for extraditing Burkov to Russia, rather than the United States.

Issachar was arrested while changing planes in Russia on her way home from a yoga course in India. Israel has rejected such a deal because the Supreme Court has already ruled and approved Burkov’s extradition to the United States.

Burkov’s motives were solely financial, said Rasmussen. It is easy to say that because he is a Russian-speaking hacker, wanted in the United States, that he also worked for Russian intelligence agencies – but in Burkov’s case this was most likely not true, Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen worked for years as a Secret Service special agent, and led the investigation against a group of hackers involved in cyber crimes and credit card fraud. He led the investigation against Burkov until 2013, when he left the Secret Service – which in addition to guarding the president, is responsible for fighting fraud. Rasmussen has been following developments in the case ever since. The indictment against Burkov, filed in Virginia in 2015, relates mostly to the years Rasmussen led the investigation – and his affidavit to Israel's Supreme Court was one of the keys to the ruling to extradite Burkov.

The Secret Service investigative team Rasmussen led followed the most sophisticated hackers in the United States. They identified Burkov’s links to hackers who had been arrested previously and noticed that on a number of occasions Burkov was responsible for building the infrastructure and brokering among hackers to enable them to carry out their crimes and steal credit card information.

The group was made up a few hundred hackers, mostly Russian speakers, some of whom lived in Russia or other countries of the former Soviet Union, said Rasmussen. Most of their interaction was conducted online, and most of them never met one another. Burkov was one of their senior leaders, Rasmussen added.

The U.S. government and Secret Service suspected him followed his activities concerning credit card fraud, and he was responsible for a number of the largest break-ins of this type in the world, said Rasmussen. He is connected to hacking crimes estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars. The most important part of the Burkov investigation, similar to many other cyber investigations, was to discover who was behind the many usernames Burkov used on underground forums and the internet, said Rasmussen. Israel had advanced technological means and shares a great deal of intelligence information on hackers with the United States, which makes it easier to identify them, he added.

In many cases, the hackers are caught when they post pictures and their information on social networks. Burkov was identified in the end when he posted a screenshot of his computer on a Russian social network, with a tab open in the background of a website that sold American credit card data to criminals, Haaretz reported this week. Access to the site can only be granted by the site’s operator. Burkov’s other posts on the social network gave away his location: He posted a picture of a vacation with friends in Thailand. From there he travelled to Egypt and when he decided to enter Israel from the Sinai and visit Eilat, he was taken into custody at the border because of the American warrant for his arrest.

The FBI was also involved in Burkov’s investigation in Israel. A senior Israeli official involved in the probe said that after his arrest, Burkov was taken to a facility at Ben-Gurion International Airport where he was interrogated by an FBI representative and another American agent. An Israeli cyber-investigator from the police’s national fraud investigation unit was also present and informed Burkov of his rights. The investigation focused only on the internet fraud accusations investigated by the Secret Service.

Rasmussen told Haaretz that the Russian pressure to trade Issachar for Burkov was quite unusual, though many Russians arrested around the world have turned their cases into international crises. He said he has been following Issachar’s case in Russia, and thought it was like the movie “Midnight Express, just in Russia instead of Turkey. Rasmussen said he believes that Burkov will be extradited to the United States in the end and serve out his prison term there, and that Issachar will be released by the Russians with a different excuse. He believes that Issachar’s dual citizenship is the reason she received such a heavy sentence.

The Russian opposition to Burkov’s extradition to the United States is political, said Rasmussen. Russia is interested in creating problems in relations between Israel and the United States, and this was an opportunity to do so. The Russians and Americans are playing chess, but in this case something else is involved, too, he said. Israel and the United States have an excellent relationship concerning the apprehension of cyber criminals and in this case, Rasmussen tends to believe the Russian claims that they want to take care of one of their citizens – but thought we must still remain skeptical about it at the same time.