VIRGINIA (Dispatches) – Three former U.S. spy agents have admitted in a Virginia court to taking part in a United Arab Emirates (UAE) hacking operation aimed at enemies and rivals of the Persian Gulf nation.
Marc Baier, 49, Ryan Adams, 34, and Daniel Gericke, 40, agreed to pay a cumulative $1.7mn in penalties, the amount they earned while working for the UAE, to resolve charges of violating U.S. export controls, computer fraud and illegal use of other people’s computer access.
The federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia agreed to defer prosecution for three years in the complex case, which highlighted the global market of government’s seeking highly trained computer security experts to spy on perceived enemies and threats.
Baier, Adams and Gericke were part of a clandestine unit named Project Raven, first reported by Reuters, which hacked into the accounts of human rights activists, journalists and rival governments at the behest of the UAE’s monarchy.
The three defendants had previously worked in the U.S. espionage community, including the National Security Agency and in the military.
According to the justice department, they had originally worked for a U.S. company providing cyber espionage operations for the UAE government that met U.S. regulations.
The men then moved in 2016 to higher-paying jobs at a UAE government-linked company, identified in media reports as DarkMatter, where they began carrying out hacking jobs on designated targets, including servers inside the U.S.
Media reports said the targets were both inside and outside the country, and the operation’s methods consisted largely of uploading malware and exploiting software and hardware vulnerabilities to break into and gain control of servers, phones and other digital equipment.
Project Raven used Karma to hack into thousands of targets including a Nobel Prize-winning Yemeni human rights activist and a BBC television show host, Reuters reported.
A Reuters investigation found that Project Raven spied on numerous human rights activists, some of whom were later tortured by UAE security forces.