World

World at risk of serious 'digital sabotage', warns spy chief

N. Korea suspected to be behind ransomware, warning of more threats

THE HAGUE: The world may be close to a "serious act of digital sabotage" that could trigger unrest, "chaos" and "disorder", Dutch spy chief Rob Bertholee warned yesterday.

Sabotage of critical infrastructure "is the kind of thing that might keep you awake at night", Mr Bertholee told a cyber security conference in The Hague, as global experts grappled with the fallout of a massive cyber attack over the past days.

Digital threats "are not imaginary - they are everywhere around us", Mr Bertholee, head of the country's intelligence services, told the conference organised by the Dutch government.

"In my opinion, we might be closer to a serious act of digital sabotage than a lot of people can imagine," he told hundreds of experts and officials.

He highlighted how, in 2012, the computers at Saudi Arabia's largest oil company came under brief attack and how, three years later, Ukrainian electricity companies were hacked, causing a massive blackout lasting several hours.

Countries must be prepared for threats in the digital domain, with governments and the private sector working together as it is "where our societies have become most vulnerable".

Meanwhile, security researchers investigating the massive cyber attack campaign over past days yesterday reported signs that it might be slowing and suggested a possible North Korean link.

In the first clues of the origin of the ransomware attack, Google researcher Neel Mehta posted a computer code that showed similarities between the WannaCry malware and a vast hacking effort widely attributed to Pyongyang.

South Korean cyber security experts warned yesterday that more cyber attacks could be in the pipeline.

The code used in the latest attack shared many similarities with past hacks blamed on North Korea, including the targeting of Sony Pictures and the central bank of Bangladesh, said Mr Simon Choi, director of Seoul Internet security firm Hauri.

POTENTIAL ATTACKS

Mr Choi, known to have vast troves of data on Pyongyang's hacking activities, has publicly warned against potential ransomware attacks by North Korea since last year.

He said: "I saw signs last year that North Korea was preparing ransomware attacks or even already beginning to do so, targeting some South Korean companies."

He cited a major attack last year that stole the data of over 10 million users of Interpark, a Seoul-based online shopping site, in which hackers demanded bitcoin payments worth about US$3 million (S$4.19 million).

But the European police agency (Europol) said it is still too early to determine who was behind the cyber attack.

"We are open to investigate in all directions, but we do not speculate, and we cannot confirm this," said a senior spokesman for Europol, Mr Jan Op Gen Oorth.

"We are working on it. The investigation is ongoing. It could come from everywhere, it could come from any country." - AFP

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