Two Russians indicted for hacking JFK taxi dispatch system

For a period of two years between September 2019 and September 2021, two Americans and two Russians allegedly compromising the taxi dispatch system at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to sell cabbies a place at the front of the dispatch line.

The two Russian nationals, Aleksandr Derebenetc and Kirill Shipulin, were indicted by a grand jury for conspiring to commit computer intrusions, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday. They remain at large.

In early October, the two American nationals, Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman, who were indicted last year, pleaded guilty, each to one count of conspiring to commit computer intrusions.

“As alleged in the indictment, these four defendants conspired to hack into the taxi dispatch system at JFK airport,” said US Attorney Damian Williams in a statement. “Cyber hacking can pose grave threats to infrastructure systems that we rely on every day, and our Office is dedicated to pursuing criminal hackers, whether they be in Russia or here in New York.”

The scheme represented an attempt to monetize the demand among taxi drivers for lucrative airport fares – the current flat rate for JFK to Manhattan is $70 plus additional charges.

As described in the indictment, taxi drivers are required to wait in a holding lot at JFK, often for several hours, before being dispatched in the order of their arrival to airport terminals. And because time spent waiting in line is not paid, drivers have a financial incentive to avoid waiting in line.

The conspirators allegedly developed a plan to hack the dispatch system around September 2019. The indictment [PDF] describes several approaches that were tried, “including bribing someone to insert a flash drive containing malware into computers connected to the dispatch system, obtaining unauthorized access to the dispatch system via a Wi-Fi connect, and stealing computer tablets connected to the dispatch system.”

The government’s filing suggests that the group gained and lost access to the dispatch system several times. When they did have access, the alleged conspirators offered to move drivers to the front of the dispatch queue for a $10 fee, and waived the fee for those who found other drivers willing to pay to play.

Many drivers took advantage of the service. According to the Justice Department, the group booked 2,463 queue cuts in a single week around December 2019. The scheme allegedly enabled as many as 1,000 trips per day that skipped the queue at JFK.

“The significant charges in this alleged hacking conspiracy show that the Port Authority takes seriously our obligation to safe and equitable operations across our facilities,” said Port Authority Inspector General John Gay in a statement. “As alleged, this brazen scheme corrupted a system that hard-working taxi drivers rely on to earn a living, all so the defendants could make some extra cash.”

The American conspirators are said to have collected the money from participating drivers and to have sent payments to the alleged Russian conspirators, describing the money transfers as “payment for software development” or “payment for services rendered.” The indictment indicates that the Russians received more than $100,000 for their work.

If apprehended – which appears unlikely given current US relations with Russia – the Russians face charges that carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

Abayev and Leyman each face up to five years in prison. They’re scheduled to be sentenced early next year. ®

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