Local universities hacked for valuable research and patents

The Iranian hacker group that infiltrated 52 staff accounts at four local universities was likely looking for sensitive research or valuable patents, said cyber security experts, noting that such syndicates focus on varsities with strong reputations.

"If you are looking for ground-breaking research to steal, it makes sense to target the smartest countries," said Mr David Maciejak, cyber security firm Fortinet's security research director, responding to news that institutions here had been hit as part of a four-year-long university hacking campaign. "It is not the first time Singapore research institutions are targeted and it will not be the last."

Pointing to a recent innovation index released by Bloomberg, which ranks Singapore third for innovation, he added that what the hackers did is a form of industrial espionage.

Ms Joanne Wong, senior regional director for Asia-Pacific and Japan at security intelligence company LogRhythm, agreed.

She said: "The hackers could use the information to reverse-engineer a solution or even hijack the research for competitive advantage. They could also sell it to other organisations for commercial gain."

On Tuesday, the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore and Education Ministry said in a joint statement that the Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design were targets of a phishing attempt.

Staff were directed to a credential harvesting website - set up to look like a legitimate university site - to key in their login details. The credentials were then used to gain unauthorised access to the institutes' library website to obtain research articles published by staff.

Experts warn that intellectual property theft aside, there might also be personal data leaks, depending on the type of research materials the hackers could have gained access to.