The US has a rocky history convincing Russia to extradite computer criminals — but it's not impossible

Key Points
  • Russia has resisted extraditing accused computer criminals to the U.S., and has fought the U.S. for extradition in some cases where accused Russian citizens were outside Russia. 
  • The Russian president said his country's officials could question the 12 accused men,  and members from Mueller's team could come to Russia to observe the proceedings. 
  • The U.S. Department of Justice has managed to extradite some Russian citizens and individuals who have worked with Russian intelligence, but the process is often difficult. 
President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a press conference Monday he may give U.S. officials access to the 12 alleged Russian intelligence agents and computer criminals named in a Department of Justice indictment Friday.

Speaking through a translator, President Putin said the 12 accused men could be questioned by Russian officials, and he would allow U.S. officials to attend the proceedings, “Including the members of this very commission headed by Mr. Mueller."

If it happens, this would represent a modest thaw in what has been a difficult task for the U.S. Department of Justice: getting access to alleged Russian computer criminals.

President Putin also denied the allegations of state-sponsored criminal hacking during the press conference.

The Russian president has long denied allegations the country sponsored the election attacks, but hasn’t denied that the attacks may have occurred. In 2017, he said “patriotic hackers” – in other words, individuals outside the control of government – may have attempted elections interference, but denied they were sponsored by the government.

It’s a critical distinction, because the roles of computer criminals who steal information, and government agents who capture intelligence, have converged significantly in Russia over the past decade.

Despite the difficulties and extradition disputes, the U.S. has still successfully captured some individuals accused of computer crimes who are either from Russia or alleged to have worked with operatives there. Here’s a shortlist:

Roman Seleznev: In May 2017, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Georgia charged Seleznev of Vladivostock to crimes related to a far-reaching “carding” scheme that targeted retailers and card processors. Seleznev was convicted in the state of Washington in April 2017 of similar crimes and sentenced to 27 years in prison. It represented one of the longest sentences ever handed down for computer crimes in the United States.

The son of a former member of Russia’s parliament, Seleznev was extradited from the Maldives in 2014, where he was on vacation, and taken to Guam and then to Seattle by U.S. officials.

Yevgeniy Nikulin: Nikulin was accused of breaches against Linkedin, Google and digital storage company Dropbox, selling stolen information alongside several unnamed conspirators as part of a criminal operation. Russia fiercely fought Nikulin’s extradition from the Czech Republic, where he was residing, saying it wanted to try Nikulin on computer hacking charges of its own.

In March 2018, the Minister of Justice of the Czech Republic decided in favor of the U.S.’s extradition request and Nikulin made his first appearance in a San Francisco court, where he pleaded not guilty.

Karim Baratov: Though not Russian, Baratov was born in Kazakhstan and was extradited to California from his home in Canada. He was accused of conspiring with Russian intelligence agents in stealing information from Yahoo as part of the sweeping breach that affected nearly all owners of Yahoo email addresses, more than 1 billion in total.

He pleaded guilty in California’s Northern District Court earlier this year to charges of computer fraud and aggravated identity theft. He was sentenced to 60 months in prison.

Peter Levashov: Levoshov’s arrest and extradition from Spain while on vacation made more headlines then most when his wife reportedly told Russian news network RT that U.S. authorities were trying to blame him for election interference. His indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut includes a wide range of allegations, from his use of malware, ransomware and dissemination of spam, and operation of a pump-and-dump stock scheme. The word “election” is not mentioned, however.

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