It’s a story reminiscent of the movie Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks. The film takes place during the Cold War when the East Germans captured an innocent young US student and wanted to exchange him for a Russian spy who was under arrest in the USA. In this case, we are in cyberspace in a cold code war. On the one hand a suspected Russian cybercriminal and on the other hand an innocent young Israeli. This is the story and our call to sign the petition for her release.
U.S. Investigations and Indictment
In 2015, the U.S. prosecutors indicted the Russian Aleksei Burkov for the alleged operation of a criminal online marketplace, computer hacking, and other crimes. At the time of the indictment, Burkov was living and working in Russia. No chance that the Russians would extradite him to the United States.
According to court documents, Burkov ran the online criminal marketplace CardPlanet (www.cardplanet.cc) that sold stolen payment card numbers (e.g., debit and credit cards). Allegedly, more than 150,000 stolen and sold payment cards resulted in over $20 million in fraudulent purchases made on U.S. credit cards. He operated CardPlanet from at least 2009 until 2013 the indictment claims (download the indictment here).
Burkov allegedly also ran some Russian online cybercrime forums that served as an invite-only club where Russian elite cybercriminals could meet and post in a secure location to plan various cybercrimes, to buy and sell stolen goods and services, such as personal identifying information and malicious software, and offer criminal services, such as money laundering and hacking services. To obtain membership in Burkov’s cybercrime forum, prospective members needed three existing members to “vouch” for their good reputation among cybercriminals and to provide a sum of money, normally $5,000, as insurance.
According to KrebsOnSecurity, a leading cybersecurity platform, Burkov is one of Russia’s top hackers and cybercriminals. He may even have links to Russia’s secret service agencies which is quite normal in the Russian hacker scene.
Burkov calls himself a specialist in information security and denies having committed the crimes for which he’s been charged. But according to denizens of several Russian-language cybercrime forums that have been following his case in the Israeli news media, Burkov was by all accounts an elite cybercrook who primarily operated under the hacker alias “K0pa.KrebsOnSecurity – Why Were the Russians So Set Against This Hacker Being Extradited?
Arrest in Israel
Burkov went on vacation with his girlfriend to Israel. At the request of the US Justice Department and the Secret Service, Israel police arrested Aleksei Burkov at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. An Israeli district court approved his extradition in 2017. He was extradited to the United States on Nov 11, 2019, after appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court and the Israeli High Court of Justice was denied.
Aleksei Burkov made his initial appearance in federal court on Nov 12, 2019, approximately 4 years after his initial arrest in Israel. Burkov calls himself a specialist in information security and denies having committed the crimes for which he’s been charged. Consequently, he pleaded not guilty to the allegations.
According to a cyberscoop report, two officials from the Russian Embassy also could be seen conferring with the defense following the hearing.
Russian Fight for Hacker and the Israeli Scapegoat
As the U.S. pushed for Burkov’s extradition through the Israeli legal system, Russia stepped in and filed its own extradition request, saying that Burkov was actually also wanted in Russia for internet fraud. As Garret M. Graff pointed out in his article on WIRED, this has become a typical Russian tactic in recent years.
While the Burkov extradition case unfolded in Israel, Russia arrested the 26-year-old American-Israeli woman Naama Issachar at the airport in Moscow. She was returning to Israel in April after a three-month trip to India, via a connecting flight through Moscow. As she was boarding her flight to Tel Aviv, she was pulled over by Russian police who told her they had found 9 grams of cannabis in her checked baggage.
Issachar acknowledged that the baggage was hers but said that the cannabis was not and that she did not know how it got into her luggage.
Then Russian prosecutors finally charged her for drug smuggling, found her guilty and sentenced to a more than seven years prison term in Russia. That’s brutal, isn’t it?
A US woman caught with twice as much marijuana at the St. Petersburg Airport in summer 2019 was let go with a $235 fine. Similar cases have met with less than a month of jail time. It quickly became clear that the Russian government was linking Issachar’s case to Burkov’s.
Her case became a matter of international politics but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pleas to Putin for a pardon have so far not been heard.
Both Russian and Israeli media, as well as diplomats, have repeatedly asked for Burkov should be traded, in a Cold War-style spy swap, for Issachar ( © Garrett M. Graff). The Russians wanted to have Burkov extradited to them by Israel and would have extradited the Israeli Naama Issachar to Israel in exchange. Ultimately, however, both the government and the courts in Israel agreed to Brokov’s extradition to the United States.
What impact Burkov’s extradition will now have on Issachar’s case remains unclear. She is a victim of the New Cold War.
Cold War Propaganda
By the afternoon, as Burkov made his first appearance in the U.S. courtroom, the Russian government posted on Facebook that America had had “unleash[ed] a hunt for our citizens across the world,” adding that Russian diplomats would visit Burkov in jail in Virginia and were in touch with Burkov’s relatives in Russia. Bravo! And what about the scapegoat Naama Issachar.
Let’s hope that there is also a Tom Hanks in this story who organizes the release of Naama Issachar.