Russian man pleads guilty to plot to extort Tesla

RENO, NEVADA (AP) — A Russian man has pleaded guilty in the United States (US) to offering a Tesla employee USD1 million to cripple the electric car company’s massive electric battery plant in Nevada with ransomware and steal company secrets for extortion, prosecutors and court records said.

In a case that cybersecurity experts called exceptional for the risks he took, Egor Igorevich Kriuchkov pleaded guilty on Thursday in US District Court in Reno. His court-appointed federal public defender Chris Frey declined on Friday to comment.

Prosecutors alleged that Kriuchkov acted on behalf of co-conspirators abroad and attempted to use face-to-face bribery to recruit an insider to physically plant ransomware, which scrambles data on targetted networks and can only be unlocked with a software key provided by the attackers.

Typically, ransomware gangs operating from safe havens hack into victim networks over the Internet and download data before activating the ransomware.

“The fact that such a risk was taken could, perhaps, suggest that this was an intelligence operation aimed at obtaining information rather than an extortion operation aimed at obtaining money,” said cybersecurity analyst at anti-virus software company Emsisoft Brett Callow.

“It’s also possible that the criminals thought the gamble was worth it and decided to roll the dice,” Callow said.

Chief Technical Officer at cybersecurity firm FireEye Charles Carmakal agreed. “You could have potentially done it from thousands of miles away without risking any asset,” he said.

The Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI) said the unnamed prospective recruit informed Tesla and cooperated with the FBI, and the plot was stopped before any damage happened.

Kriuchkov, 27, told a judge in September that he knew the Russian government was aware of his case. But prosecutors and the FBI have not alleged ties to the Kremlin. Kriuchkov is in federal custody at the Washoe County jail in Reno.

A sign marks the entrance to the Tesla Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada. PHOTO: AP