The US is offering a $10m reward for members of an Iranian hacking group allegedly behind a targeted attempt to undermine the US presidential election.
Authorities charged two Iranian nationals and sanctioned another four over a disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt in the integrity of the 2020 election among both Republican and Democratic voters.
Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi, 24, and Sajjad Kashian,27, are alleged to have targeted 11 states before being successfully hacking 100,000 voter records in at least one state, reported to be Alaska.
They sent emails posing as Proud Boys threatening “vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you”.
“You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure,” the email stated. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply,” the email continued.
They also sent messages to White House officials, members of Congress and news organisations claiming the Democratic Party was attempting to change votes using vulnerabilities in election infrastructure, the Justice Department said.
Videos showed the fake Proud Boy members hacking into state voter websites and using stolen voter records, authorities said.
“Iranian actors sought to sow discord by targeting Republicans with messages claiming voter fraud, and Democrats with ‘false flag’ threats from the Proud Boys,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G Olsen said in a statement.
While the FBI offered a $10m reward for information leading to their arrest, the US Treasury Department sanctioned both along with four colleagues from Iranian cyber company Emennet Pasargad, which was also sanctioned.
Mr Kazemi and Mr Kashian face more than 10 years in prison on counts of conspiracy, voter intimidation, and transmission of interstate threats. Mr Kazemi is also facing a charge of unauthorised computer intrusion.
An official from the Department of Justice told reporters that they are presumed to be based in Iran outside of the US’s reach, but that their movements would be “restricted”.
A National Intelligence Council report released in March, Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections, said that the covert influence campaign to interfere in the election was authorised by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian state-sponsored operation ran between August and November 2020 and was a “four-stage campaign to undermine the faith and confidence in the 2020 presidential election and otherwise sow discord within US society”, the Justice Department said.
The first stage of the alleged campaign was reconnaissance on the 11 states’ voter websites between September and October, resulting in the successful hack of 100,000 voter records.
The second stage in October was to pose as Proud Boys and send fake messages to both Democratic voters and Republican Senators and members of Congress, the White House and the Trump campaign.
The third stage in October was an online voter intimidation campaign of threatening messages, again posing as Proud Boys.
In the fourth and final stage on the day after the election in November, the hackers unsuccessfully attempted to access an unnamed media company network to disseminate fake election claims.