Iranian hackers with links to the Tehran government carried out a series of attacks on universities in an attempt to steal secrets, authorities in the US and UK said.
The National Cyber Security Centre assessed with “high confidence” that the Mabna Institute was “almost certainly responsible” for the campaign targeting universities in the UK, US and other Western nations.
In the US, the Justice Department announced charges against nine Iranians and listed them and the Mabna Institute for sanctions.
US deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein said: “These nine Iranian nationals allegedly stole more than 31 terabytes of documents and data from more than 140 American universities, 30 American companies, five American government agencies, and also more than 176 universities in 21 foreign countries.
“For many of these intrusions, the defendants acted at the behest of the Iranian government and, specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
The UK Government backed the action taken by Washington and revealed that British universities were among those targeted.
Foreign Office minister for cyber Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said: “The UK Government judges that the Mabna Institute based in Iran was responsible for a hacking campaign targeting universities around the world.
“By stealing intellectual property from universities, these hackers attempted to make money and gain technological advantage at our expense.
“We welcome the US indictments. It demonstrates our willingness and ability to respond collectively to cyber attacks using all levers at our disposal.
“The focus on universities is a timely reminder that all organisations are potential targets and need to constantly strive for the best possible cyber security.
“Today’s action is a further step demonstrating that malicious cyber activity will not go unpunished.
“Mabna Institute employees can no longer travel freely, curtailing their career prospects outside of Iran.”
The nine charged in the US were: Gholamreza Rafatnejad, 38; Ehsan Mohammadi, 37; Abdollah Karima, aka Vahid Karima, 39; Mostafa Sadeghi, 28; Seyed Ali Mirkarimi, 34; Mohammed Reza Sabahi, 26; Roozbeh Sabahi, 24; Abuzar Gohari Moqadam, 37; and Sajjad Tahmasebi, 30.
They are all citizens and residents of Iran and, because the US has no extradition agreement, are unlikely to ever stand trial.
US law enforcement agencies indicted other employees of the Mabna Institute in November 2017 for the hack and leak operation against TV company HBO.