Russia's 'Humpty Dumpty' hackers: What were they trying to do?
- 10 February 2017
- From the section Europe
Russian police have arrested members of a prominent group of hackers that leaked information about Russian officials and state ministries. BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg meets a "Humpty Dumpty" member hiding out in Estonia who explains why the notorious group did what they did.
In a restaurant in the city of Tallinn, Alexander Glazastikov tells me how he got into the business of stealing and leaking information.
"I was bored with my job, I wanted to try something else. Something interesting."
Along with former journalist Vladimir Anikeev, Glazastikov created "Anonymous International". The group became known as "Shaltai Boltai" - the Russian name for "Humpty Dumpty". Mr Anikeev is now under arrest in Moscow.
"I was like an editor and at the same time I did some analytics," Alexander explains. "When Mr Anikeev gave me downloaded mailboxes, I looked through them trying to find pieces of information which could be interesting to publish."
'Enemies of the Kremlin'
He describes the group's work as originally "a politically-oriented project in opposition to the Kremlin", with Mr Anikeev providing the private emails of "top Russian officials", as well as powerful Kremlin-connected businessmen.
"We wanted to make this information public," Alexander says. "We were ideological enemies of the Kremlin. Later, yes, there was some commerce: we sold something, or deleted old posts for money. But originally the project was to fight corruption."
The leaked information highlighted the scale of corruption in Russia.
"We did find some honest people," he says, "but I can count them on fingers of one hand. Almost everyone is corrupt."
Did the group ever try to hack the president?
"Putin is not an IT guy. But Medvedev is," he replies. On one occasion, Humpty Dumpty hacked Prime Minister Medvedev's Twitter account.
Eventually the group began to feel the pressure.
"Two years ago we heard rumours that Russian military counterintelligence is after us," recalls Alexander. "They were crazy after we published some information about locations of submarine bases, about renovations of these bases and their exact locations. "
He claims that in 2016 "a top official" of Russia's security service, the FSB, became Humpty Dumpty's "handler".
A gentleman's agreement
"From the beginning, the project was independent. But in the middle of last year Mr Anikeev informed me that a high-level official from the FSB had come to him - a handler or a middle man," Alexander says.
"He'd said: 'Guys, we already have information about you and your project. But we want to cooperate. So we will cover you - for your security. We will have the right of veto. Inform us the day before you publish anything. Maybe, we will ask you to publish something.'
"There was a gentleman's agreement. Mr Anikeev never told me the name of the handler."
"So, you had support at the top levels of Russian intelligence?" I ask.
"It was not support," replies Alexander. "As you see now, Mr Anikeev is in prison. This is not support."
In Russia three men are in custody in connection with the Humpty Dumpty case. There have been recent arrests, too, at the FSB. Among those detained is Sergei Mikhailov, deputy head of the FSB's information security centre. He's been charged with treason in the interests of the United States.
The Russian authorities insist there is no connection between the arrests at the FSB and the Humpty Dumpty case. But Russian media have speculated that Mr Mikhailov may have been Humpty Dumpty's FSB handler.
As for alleged Russian state-sponsored hacking of the West, Alexander denies that Humpty Dumpty was involved.
"We never had any interest in finding or hacking information about anyone outside Russia," he says.
"There was no other target. Our target was the Kremlin and people who surround the Kremlin."
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I ask Alexander how he sees himself: as a kind of Robin Hood, or a criminal?
"If you ask me, did I hack any mail account or not, I didn't. I received information. I read it, analysed it and put it on our website.
"Did I receive some dirty money? Yes. Maybe I preferred not to ask where the money comes from. Maybe that is a mistake on my part. But that's life. I'm not proud of it."
'I didn't buy a Bentley'
He admits that he knew the information was "probably stolen" but says most of what the group published was "a matter of public interest, so somehow it excuses me".
"Did you make a lot of money?" I ask. "No. I didn't buy an apartment, or a Bentley," he smiles.
Alexander says he plans to ask for asylum in Estonia. Is he worried the authorities here may send him back to Russia?
"I hope they will not. Estonia doesn't like the Kremlin. I like Estonia. And I don't like the Kremlin."
He is certain he will be arrested if he returns to Russia. "I didn't make treason," Alexander says, "but I touched government interests".