A Russian hacker who was convicted for his lead role in one of the biggest data thefts in US history has been released from prison after serving most of his 12-year sentence.
Vladimir Drinkman was released from a Pennsylvania prison on October 28, the US Bureau of Prisons told RFE/RL.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not respond to an RFE/RL request for comment on whether Drinkman had been removed for deportation, a process that can take several months. Drinkman’s attorney, Igor Litvak, declined to comment. RFE/RL could not immediately reach Drinkman.
Drinkman was a key member of a criminal hacking group that penetrated major US corporations, including Heartland Payment Systems, which at the time it was hacked in 2008 was one of the largest US payment processors. payments. Heartland attack – the the biggest breach in history at the time – cost the payment company more than $200 million in losses.
Varonis, a US-based cybersecurity company, class attack on Heartland among the 10 biggest data breaches of all time.
Chuck Brooks, cybersecurity expert and assistant professor at Georgetown University, said the Heartland hack was a “wake-up call” for payments and financial industries to improve their cyber defenses.
He said the breach led to stricter security policies, including a better understanding by CEOs and CFOs of threats to corporate sustainability and reputation.
“After the breach, many companies added stricter data and security policies, including encryption, multi-factor authentication, and system and network monitoring,” Brooks told RFE/RL.
Heartland also later created the Payments Processing Information Sharing Council (PPISC), which serves as a forum for banks and payment processors to share information about breaches and compliance issues, he noted.
In addition to breaking into Heartland, the hacking gang also breached Nasdaq OMX Group, 7-Eleven, JC Penney, JetBlue Airways and others, prosecutors say. In total, they stole over 160 million credit card data, resulting in over $300 million in damages.
Greg Hunter, a Virginia-based attorney who has represented cybercriminals from the former Soviet Union, said the Heartland case demonstrates the sophisticated evolution of Russian-speaking hackers.
“That was the start of specialization,” Hunter told RFE/RL. “Rather than an individual hacker spending a lot of time stealing credit card data and then trying to monetize it, you had guys specializing in breaching a site’s security apparatus, others selling the data.”
The emergence of hacker forums has been essential to the division of labor phenomenon, he said.
Hacker sites “allowed these guys to find each other and work together. A guy who rapes banks might just focus on that, knowing he could find other people to help him figure out what to get and how to use it, or just purchase its services directly,” Hunter said.
Cardplanet and Direct Connection are among the most commonly used forums where hackers have bought and sold stolen credit card data and traded tips. A Russian, Aleksei Burkov, was extradited from Israel to the United States and later pleaded guilty in 2020 to US charges related to his surveillance of these forums.
He was deported to Russia last year.
According to US court documents, Drinkman and another co-conspirator, Alexandr Kalinin, specialized in network security penetration and access to corporate data systems. Drinkman and a third man, Roman Kotov, also focused on exploiting networks to steal valuable data.
Another Russian man, Dmitry Smilyanets, then sold the stolen credit card information on forums for $10-50 each and distributed the product of the scheme to others, according to prosecutors.
Kalinin and Kotov, both Russian citizens, are said to still be in Russia.
Drinkman was arrested in the Netherlands in June 2012 at the request of the United States, along with Smilyanets.
While Smilyanets cooperated with US authorities and arrived in the United States within months of his arrest, Drinkman fought his extradition for over a year.
In the end, Drinkman pleaded guilty in 2015 and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, including time served since his arrest. This is one of the toughest sentences given to a Russian hacker.
Drinkman served a total of 10 years and four months, or 86% of his sentence. US federal prisoners are rewarded annually for good behavior and typically serve 85% of their sentence.
Smilyanets was sentenced to less than six years and currently resides in the United States, where he works as a Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst.
He declined to comment when contacted by RFE/RL.