Cyber police called over Niwa hacking

TARGET: Niwa supercomputer FitzRoy.
TARGET: Niwa supercomputer FitzRoy.

Prime Minister John Key has sought a briefing from the government's cyber spies after an attempted hack of Niwa's supercomputer.

The $12.7 million system named FitzRoy was targeted by a hacker late last week and brought back online at the weekend.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research would not comment on who launched the cyber attack but Key confirmed yesterday that it appeared to originate from China.

Key said he had asked for a briefing from the National Cyber Security Centre, which is based at the Government Communications Security Bureau.

However, he was "cautious" about any speculation.

"They [hackers] often hide their identity through the IP addresses that they use. While sometimes they might look as though it is obvious which country they are coming from, they can just be a host for an entity that's actually completely different from the one you see."

Key said it was "very, very difficult" to know if the intention was espionage.

The number of cyber attacks registered in New Zealand grew from 134 in 2012, to 219 in 2013. About 70 per cent of attacks were on the private sector, Key said.

"It's not either wise or appropriate for me to comment about the particular companies that have been attacked . . . but what is certainly true is that there are a number of entities who are making quite sophisticated, robust attempts to break into the systems of some very large private sector entities," he said.

"And there would be a range of reasons why they are trying to do that . . . for trade, intellectual property those companies have, understand a bit about their clients, understand a bit about their data systems."

The US last week identified Chinese military hackers, who are accused of stealing trade secrets from largest companies.

A Niwa spokeswoman said the supercomputer was brought back online on Saturday evening, and normal services had resumed.

"Niwa is able to confirm that the unauthorised attempts to gain access to the supercomputer were unsuccessful."

FitzRoy was taken offline when the hacking attempt was discovered, and no sensitive personal or client information was stored on it, she said.

Installed in 2010, FitzRoy weighs 18 tonnes and has the same power as about 7000 laptops working simultaneously.

Computer forensics expert Daniel Ayers said the attack appeared to have been a concerted effort to gain access to Niwa's supercomputer. "Someone is trying to compromise our Government's IT systems."

Supercomputers were "the weapons of the modern age", and New Zealand's involvement in the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance with the United States, Britain, Australia, and Canada, could see it receive more attention from hackers.

"We've always traded off the fact that we're small, we're unimportant, and most people don't know we exist," Ayers said. "We need to consider if we've become more of a target. We're the most junior partner in Five Eyes, so people may think we're a soft target."

Confusion remains over the motive for the attack, given Niwa is dedicated to environmental science.

However, it received funding in 2009 on the understanding it would be available to the wider scientific community.

The supercomputer is connected to a high-speed research network linking universities and research institutes.

GNS Science confirmed yesterday that it had used FitzRoy, but not for commercially sensitive work.

The Crown research institute is involved in the search for oil, gas and mineral deposits, potentially making it privy to some of the country's most significant economic secrets.

GNS spokesman John Callan said it had used Niwa's supercomputer for seismological studies, but not to carry out work for commercial clients.

Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton said businesses needed to be better prepared for escalating cyber threats.

Global cyber attacks have increased more than 2000 per cent in the past four years, with about half originating from the Asia Pacific region.

"The hacking of Niwa's supercomputer . . . is a stark reminder that New Zealand is not immune to the increasing global threat of cyber crime," Grafton said.

Other supercomputer systems in New Zealand are reportedly held at Canterbury University and Wellington's Weta Digital.

The Dominion Post