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North Korean cyber gangs blitz Irish companies with 'almost daily' attacks

  • Pyongyang regime is the chief suspect in the €4.3m cyber raid on Meath County Council
  • Ireland finds itself on the front line of an escalating global cyber war
  • 44pc of all economic crimes now reported by Irish businesses involve cyber crime


North Korean state-sponsored cyber gangs are launching almost daily attacks on Irish companies, banks and utilities as it emerged a syndicate associated with the Pyongyang regime is the chief suspect in the €4.3m cyber raid on Meath County Council last year.

Ireland finds itself on the front line of an escalating global cyber war as a leading IT security expert warned that North Korea, because of UN and US sanctions, has now turned to international cyber robbery as the primary means of funding its state and massive military.

Ireland will be targeted due to the number of US multinationals based here.

Defence Minister Paul Kehoe admitted a critical element of the new White Paper on Defence will be rapidly upgrading Ireland’s capability of defending against cyber attacks.

The cost of cyber raids on Irish businesses has soared from €498,000 in 2014 to €1.7m in 2016 – with analysts warning it is likely to increase exponentially over future years.

PWC estimates that 44pc of all economic crimes now reported by Irish businesses involve cyber crime.

The number of cyber attacks suffered by Irish businesses doubled between 2012 and 2016, but that figure is expected to double or even treble because of recent ransomware attacks.

Ronan Murphy, of Smarttech247, said it was vital Ireland understands that it was now firmly on the front line of the cyber battle because of the number of US multinationals based here.

“There were always certain unspoken rules in terms of cyber warfare between countries and intelligence services,” Mr Murphy said.

“But North Korea has thrown the entire rule book out the window. It is basically engaging in cyber warfare to raise funds and to cause global chaos.

“There is no safe hiding place anymore. These aren’t ordinary criminal gangs – you are essentially dealing with state cyber intelligence units.”

He said that the WannaCry ransomware attack which caused global chaos earlier this year was exploited by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s cyber security services – but only netted a measly €120,000 for Pyongyang because of an unforeseen escape route built into the malware.

Investigators now believe the attempted €4.3m cyber raid carried out against Meath County Council in October 2016 originated in North Korea.

The funds were frozen in a bank account in Hong Kong just minutes before they were scheduled to be transferred.

The attempted fraud was carried out on October 28 and the council admitted it was “a highly sophisticated” attack.

Cyber thieves impersonated the identity of chief executive Jackie Maguire, and issued a fake instruction to a junior council employee for the funds to be transferred overseas.

The Garda Computer Crime Bureau is now liaising with Europol and Interpol over the matter.

Mr Murphy stressed that Ireland needs to prepare itself for even more sophisticated attacks, with hundreds of attacks already taking place across Irish firms on a daily basis.

“These probing attacks are occurring almost 24/7 on Irish networks and, in most cases, the firms involved are simply not aware of it.”

Smarttech logged an incredible 21 million attacks last year – and the rate of attacks is increasing on a daily basis.

Mr Murphy said different cyber syndicates have different priorities – Chinese gangs are usually targeting healthcare data and industrial secrets, North Korean gangs – usually supported by the state’s cyber intelligence agency – are focused on stealing funds and exploiting ransomware attacks while European and Russian hackers can have multiple motives.

Mr Murphy’s firm was the first in the world to liaise with computer giant IBM over the use of the super-computer ‘Watson’ for real-time artificial intelligence-based defence against cyber criminals.

According to a nationwide cyber security awareness survey, over 171,000 businesses in the State could be vulnerable to crippling ransomware attacks.

Some 48pc of all businesses have no cyber security policy in place, with a further 27pc acknowledging that either their security needs tightening or they are completely unsecure, according to the survey carried out by Magnet Networks.

The Magnet Networks National Cyber Security Awareness Survey was carried out among 205 companies spread across all sectors and regions, giving an up-to-date sample of the business attitudes to a threat which could potentially ruin many of those who are attacked.

The survey found that 26pc of businesses have suffered from cyber attacks in the past two years, with a further 18pc unsure if they have been affected.

Dublin Information Sec 2017, Ireland’s cyber security conference, addresses the critically important issues that threaten businesses in the information age. For more on INM’s Dublin InfoSec 2017 conference, go to: independent.ie/infosec

Irish Independent