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Ubiquiti data breach orchestrated by “trusted insider”, says DoJ

Software engineer Nickolas Sharp faces 37 years in prison for allegedly exploiting his access credentials to extort his employer

A cyber attack on Ubiquiti Networks, first reported earlier this year, was allegedly orchestrated by a former employee of the Internet of things (IoT) manufacturer.

This is according to an indictment released by the US Department of Justice (DoJ), which names software engineer Nickolas Sharp as being the “trusted insider” behind the January attack.

Sharp is accused of having taken advantage of his authorised, Cloud Lead access to Ubiquiti’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) and GitHub servers in order to obtain gigabytes of confidential data, masking his identity with a Surfshark VPN.

Posing as an anonymous hacker, it's believed he then contacted his employer demanding a ransom of 50 Bitcoin, which at the time was worth close to $2 million. When Ubiquiti refused to engage, Sharp allegedly released a portion of the stolen data “on a publicly accessible online platform”, which had not been named by the DoJ.

It's also alleged he then posed as a whistleblower to the media in order to accuse Ubiquiti of allegedly downplaying the severity of the breach.

Ubiquiti customers were warned in January to change their passwords after the company discovered an intruder had accessed corporate systems hosted on AWS, although information on the hack was limited at the time.

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Sharp was arrested on Wednesday in the US state of Oregon, where he resides. Although the indictment uses the term “Company-1” instead of outright naming Ubiquiti as the victim, all the details of the data breach point towards the company.

Moreover, Sharp lists Ubiquiti as his employer at the time of the attack on his LinkedIn profile, having left the company in March 2021 to pursue a senior staff software engineer role at fleet management solutions provider Lytx.

His plot was uncovered when a temporary internet outage during the data exfiltration process unveiled Sharp’s home IP address, according to the indictment.

Commenting on the news, US attorney Damian Williams said that Sharp faces “serious federal charges”, which include ​​transmitting a programme to a protected computer that intentionally caused damage, transmission of an interstate threat, wire fraud, and making false statements to the FBI. With the four charges combined, Sharp could face up to 37 years in prison.

FBI assistant director Michael J. Driscoll said that the agency alleges that Sharp “created a twisted plot to extort the company he worked for by using its technology and data against it”.

“Mr. Sharp may have believed he was smart enough to pull off his plan, but a simple technical glitch ended his dreams of striking it rich,” he added.

Ubiquiti representatives were not immediately available for comment.

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