The new Cold War: how Russia and China are hacking British companies and spying on their employees
There are now three certainties in life: death, taxes, and cyber-attacks by foreign agents intent on industrial espionage
…In 2012, the then-head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, issued a warning about the scale of cyber espionage. In a speech he said that a “major London listed company” had lost a staggering £800m as a result of a “hostile state cyber attack”. It was a statement designed to shock – and it received extensive media coverage. But the victim was not identified. For the first time, the name of the company being referred to can now be revealed. A number of sources say that it was the mining giant Rio Tinto.
The company itself will not comment but the extractive industries have been a major target for Chinese spies as China has a vast appetite for raw materials to fuel its growth – including iron ore for the steel to build its skyscrapers, cars and for use in its factories. In 2009, Rio Tinto was engaged in negotiations which involved fixing iron ore prices with China over long periods for vast sums of money.
Renegotiation of these contracts was a game played for high stakes, notably as gaps opened up between the market price and the price that had been fixed. Rio Tinto staff were even arrested. China may have achieved its goal of lowering prices through a mixture of traditional means – such as pressuring staff – alongside cyber espionage at the crucial moment in order to ensure a “negotiated” shift to a pricing deal much more favourable to Beijing (although the final losses to Rio Tinto, experts say, may not quite have been as high as first estimated)…
And it is not just the Chinese. In terms of volume of attacks on Western companies, they may be the largest player on the field but, as I was researching my book on computers and espionage, I found that one other country worried officials just as much. The Chinese use big nets to trawl but are often sloppier and easier to spot. Russia’s hackers, by contrast, are more expert and operate below the radar…
The Russian economy is heavily dependent on exporting energy, and the country’s intelligence services also appear to have prioritised this field. One major energy firm was told by the British government that it had something on its system. Within a day, the company found that one computer was sending out a signal after a small number of individuals had been sent carefully researched emails. Forensics on the machine showed the malware had been in place for nine months. The company analysed the email, the target and the timing (correlating it with business transactions going on at the time). That left them 99 per cent sure that it was a state-sponsored attack by the Russians on behalf of their energy industry…
Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies by Gordon Corera [more here] is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson this week.
As for Canada:
Cyber War Puts Democracies on the Defensive