Russian cybercrime has regularly terrorized the world – from interfering in the 2016 presidential election to a hacker group known as Evil Corp. being charged with stealing $100 million from US banks in December. “Russia is the leader in cybercrime, reflecting the skill of its hacker community and its disdain for western law enforcement,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies found in 2018.
But who are Russian hackers? No one may know them better than defense attorney Arkady Bukh, a Soviet-born tech aficionado who has defended 100 of them for crimes that he says range from online murder schemes to stealing personal information.
Sometimes his clients are famous. Bukh consulted on the defense of Sergey Pavlovich, one of 11 hackers charged with the massive 2008 credit card data theft from TJ Maxx and Barnes and Noble. Bukh later hired Pavlovich – after he did time for the crime in Belarus – to work at his startup consulting US companies on cybersecurity.
Bukh’s more recent clients include Maksim Boiko, a hacker and rapper from northern Russia currently waiting to stand trial in Pennsylvania. And he represented Fedir Hladyr, who pleaded guilty in September to hacking and wire charges and agreed to pay $2.5 million in restitution.
Bukh also represented a famous client who is not a hacker: Azamat Tazhayakov, convicted of conspiracy and obstructing justice in the Boston Marathon bombing case.
Bukh takes part in hackers’ forums on the dark web, and advertises his law firm there with banner ads. He can speak to them in his native Russian about their other favorite language, Python, the computer coding language they favor. Those forums are the key to understanding Russian cybercrime, Bukh believes. They give a view of Russian hackers that is much more human than Hollywood might have you believe.
At least some hackers gather in those sorts of virtual spaces not knowing what they will be hired to do. Sometimes they are promised good jobs at Apple and Google if they perform well on a project, Bukh suggests — then end up creating programs that will be used to siphon databases of credit card numbers.
Many of his clients have key things in common: They are from Eastern Europe; they’re smart; and they’re stuck in a life with few real prospects. “I don’t think they turn to crime because they are having a great life.”
As a defense attorney of suspects apprehended by US law enforcement, Bukh does not encounter the vast nation-state hacking that is behind much of Russia’s largest cybercrimes. “My clients are often middle-class Russian and Ukrainian boys with good knowledge of computer science. They have difficulty finding a job, so they prefer to break the law — knowingly or unknowingly.”
‘That is part of the US justice system’
Bukh, 47, is himself a contradiction in many ways. He is an American citizen with deep reverence for the work of the FBI and CIA – while working to get his Russian clients free from their prosecutions. He has defended hackers who attacked American companies, then hired them to work in his startup.
Bukh was born in the former Soviet Union, where his parents were both academics. The family sought religious asylum in the US because they are Jewish, and moved to New York, where he went to college and law school. He now runs law offices in Brooklyn and Las Vegas. After almost 20 years in practice, he’s come to see defending these hackers as something akin to his patriotic duty.
“Everyone has a right to a fair trial and an attorney,” he says. “That is part of the US justice system, and part of what makes it great.”
‘True and not true’
For one misconception that Bukh would like to dispel, many believe Russian hackers cannot be prosecuted because their government protects them. It’s not that simple, he says.
“That is both true and not true,” Bukh says. “It is true because Russia has no extradition treaty with the US. But, usually through negligence, they get apprehended after traveling to Europe or the US.”
So the image of a Russian hacking mastermind is false?
“This is again true and not true,” he says.
There are vast nation-state enterprises and occasional criminal masterminds, to be sure, but Bukh has mainly forund an industry of frustrated tech workers with limited opportunities who are sometimes even unaware they are committing crimes.
“You have to understand there is desperation in Russia for political and financial considerations. The government helps to create a breeding ground for criminal hacking. The government’s propaganda says the US and the West are the enemy, and hurting the enemy is not a crime. The worst case in Russia is probation where they are not even locked up. On the other hand, most administrative violations can result in jail time,” he says.
Even the Russian mob, he says, is also deeply misunderstood by the West. “It’s not what it used to be,” he says. “They’ve gotten older, crime has evolved and gone online. Many can no longer operate. They start a business and enjoy the rest of their lives.”