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In January 2021, technology vendor Ubiquiti Inc. [NYSE:UI] disclosed that a breach at a third party cloud provider had exposed customer account credentials. In March, a Ubiquiti employee warned that the company had drastically understated the scope of the incident, and that the third-party cloud provider claim was a fabrication. On Wednesday, a former Ubiquiti developer was arrested and charged with stealing data and trying to extort his employer while pretending to be a whistleblower.
Federal prosecutors say Nickolas Sharp, a senior developer at Ubiquiti, actually caused the “breach” that forced Ubiquiti to disclose a cybersecurity incident in January. They allege that in late December 2020, Sharp applied for a job at another technology company, and then abused his privileged access to Ubiquiti’s systems at Amazon’s AWS cloud service and the company’s GitHub accounts to download large amounts of proprietary data.
Sharp’s indictment doesn’t specify how much data he allegedly downloaded, but it says some of the downloads took hours, and that he cloned approximately 155 Ubiquiti data repositories via multiple downloads over nearly two weeks.
On Dec. 28, other Ubiquiti employees spotted the unusual downloads, which had leveraged internal company credentials and a Surfshark VPN connection to hide the downloader’s true Internet address. Assuming an external attacker had breached its security, Ubiquiti quickly launched an investigation.
But Sharp was a member of the team doing the forensic investigation, the indictment alleges.
“At the time the defendant was part of a team working to assess the scope and damage caused by the incident and remediate its effects, all while concealing his role in committing the incident,” wrote prosecutors with the Southern District of New York.
According to the indictment, on January 7 a senior Ubiquiti employee received a ransom email. The message was sent through an IP address associated with the same Surfshark VPN. The ransom message warned that internal Ubiquiti data had been stolen, and that the information would not be used or published online as long as Ubiquiti agreed to pay 25 Bitcoin.
The ransom email also offered to identify a purportedly still unblocked “backdoor” used by the attacker for the sum of another 25 Bitcoin (the total amount requested was equivalent to approximately $1.9 million at the time). Ubiquiti did not pay the ransom demands.
Investigators say they were able to tie the downloads to Sharp and his work-issued laptop because his Internet connection briefly failed on several occasions while he was downloading the Ubiquiti data. Those outages were enough to prevent Sharp’s Surfshark VPN connection from functioning properly — thus exposing his Internet address as the source of the downloads.
When FBI agents raided Sharp’s residence on Mar. 24, he reportedly maintained his innocence and told agents someone else must have used his Paypal account to purchase the Surfshark VPN subscription.
Several days after the FBI executed its search warrant, Sharp “caused false or misleading news stories to be published about the incident,” prosecutors say. Among the claims made in those news stories was that Ubiquiti had neglected to keep access logs that would allow the company to understand the full scope of the intrusion. In reality, the indictment alleges, Sharp had shortened to one day the amount of time Ubiquiti’s systems kept certain logs of user activity in AWS.
“Following the publication of these articles, between Tuesday, March 30, 2021 and Wednesday March 31, [Ubiquiti’s] stock price fell approximately 20 percent, losing over four billion dollars in market capitalization,” the indictment states.
Sharp faces four criminal counts, including wire fraud, intentionally damaging protected computers, transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort, and making false statements to the FBI.
News of Sharp’s arrest was first reported by BleepingComputer, which wrote that while the Justice Department didn’t name Sharp’s employer in its press release or indictment, all of the details align with previous reporting on the Ubiquiti incident and information presented in Sharp’s LinkedIn account. A link to the indictment is here (PDF).