MOSCOW - Hacking the hackers is a crime, according to an FSB officer who has charged the FBI with using illegal methods to snare two young Russians who were arrested in the United States.
Igor Tkach, an officer in the Chelyabinsk branch of the Federal Security Service, has opened a criminal case against FBI Special Agent Michael Schuler, Interfax reported Thursday, citing the FSB press service in Moscow.
Schuler is accused of illegally accessing Russian Web servers to gather evidence against two computer hackers from Chelyabinsk, who were lured to Seattle in November 2000.
"If Russian hackers can be convicted on evidence obtained by the Americans through hacking, it means the U.S. secret services may use further illegal means of obtaining information in Russia and in other countries," an FSB spokesperson told Interfax on Thursday.
Other Russian officials also seemed to take the situation seriously.
"Our position is unambiguous: Crime must be rooted out, but it must not mean that any means can be used for doing so," First Deputy Communications Minister Andrei Korotkov said Thursday on RTR television.
It was not clear Thursday how seriously the Russian charges would be taken by U.S. law-enforcement agencies or whether the FSB has any means to influence the activities of the FBI or put an FBI agent on trial.
The FSB asked the U.S. Justice Department earlier this year to open a criminal investigation into Schuler's actions, Interfax reported.
U.S. Justice Department spokesperson Jill Stillman said Thursday she was not aware of any such request from Russia. "I cannot comment and we wouldn't comment because the FBI is a part of the Department of Justice," Stillman said by telephone from Washington. "But I also have no information regarding it."
The FSB's Moscow press office referred calls seeking comment to the FSB office in Chelyabinsk, a city in the Urals, where it was already late in the day and no one answered the phone.
The Prosecutor General's Office reportedly upheld the charges, but a spokesperson said Thursday she could provide no immediate comment.
Ray Lauer, an FBI spokesperson in Seattle, said he knew nothing about the FSB's accusation against his colleague Schuler. This was the first time that he personally had heard about a Russian agency suing the Federal Bureau of Investigations, he said.
The story that sprouted such an unexpected twist began in November 2000, when two hackers from Chelyabinsk, Vasily Gorshkov, 26, and Alexei Ivanov, 21, arrived in Seattle.
They came upon the invitation of a U.S. Internet company, aptly named Invita, which turned out to be a bogus firm set up by the FBI to ensnare the two Russians.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, the hackers had gained unauthorized access to computers to steal credit-card information and other personal financial information, and then tried to extort money with threats to expose sensitive data to the public or damage the victims' computers. The hackers also managed to defraud California-based online payment company PayPal, through a scheme in which stolen credit cards were used to generate cash and to pay for computer parts purchased from vendors in the United States.
Invita "managers" - FBI special agents Schuler and Marty Prewett - offered the hackers well-paid jobs and asked them to demonstrate their skills in Invita's office in downtown Seattle.
While Gorshkov was using an Invita computer, the FBI secretly used a "sniffer" program that logs every keystroke a person types.
The hackers were arrested on the spot. Gorshkov was convicted by a jury in October 2001 and awaits sentencing in Seattle. He faces a maximum sentence of 100 years in prison, as well as a maximum fine of $250,000 on each of 20 counts of various computer crimes.
Ivanov was indicted in California in June 2001 and awaits trial in Connecticut. He faces up to 90 years behind bars.