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Finnish R&D and utilities in line of cyber espionage fire, say security police

Finnish research and development, as well as critical infrastructure, are being targeted by state-backed cyber espionage attacks, says report

Foreign states are attempting to steal information about Finland’s critical infrastructure and product development, Finnish security intelligence service Supo warned in its annual report for 2017.

Furthermore, the report revealed that in 2017 it saw several cases where it was obvious that an intrusion had the systematic backing of a foreign power.

“Foreign states wish to steal information concerning Finland’s critical infrastructure and Finnish product development, for example,” said the report.

The research and development (R&D) efforts of technology companies and the businesses that serve them are being attacked, said Supo. “The range of industries is broad, stretching from the mechanical engineering and equipment industry to healthcare technology.

“A Finnish company that has fallen victim to industrial espionage loses the competitive edge that it gained through in-house R&D work,” the intelligence service said. “This type of industrial espionage often enjoys the backing of a foreign power seeking to make R&D findings available to its own industrial base without the required investment and with no great risk of being caught.”

The report said the Finnish energy sector and its associated R&D companies were also targets. It added that this surveillance was not aimed at stealing information, but on finding vulnerabilities and features in critical infrastructure that could be exploited to paralyse that infrastructure in a time of crisis.

Officials and energy firms in Europe and the US have been particularly worried about the potential for destructive cyber attacks in the power sector since December 2016, when hackers cut electricity in Ukraine.

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In March, US government officials said Russian hackers were conducting a broad assault on the US electricity grid and other key facilities in rolling attacks on some of the country’s most sensitive infrastructure.

With data becoming the key factor for an increasing number of corporations, the risks of larger damages are increasing, Supo noted. Data networks eliminate the significance of distance, and an espionage operation can apply increasingly efficient means from a distance, with diminishing risk. 

“Intruding into a Finnish data system does not require any physical presence in Finland, and such operations can even be carried out in the source country during office hours. Countering the espionage threat is increasingly difficult because companies have often outsourced parts of their information management. Sub-contractor chains easily become complex, making anomalies hard to detect,” the report said.

Supo stressed the role of new intelligence legislation, currently under preparation, for its ability to step in to protect against such attacks as Finland’s critical infrastructure, which is almost entirely owned by private companies.

“Even though private businesses are performing functions that were previously the responsibility of public authorities, legislation is based on the assumption that unauthorised intelligence gathering from a private business is espionage targeting the business and not the state,” it said.

In addition to cyber espionage, traditional espionage also remained active in 2017.

“Foreign intelligence services try to recruit Finns to provide them with information that is not publicly available. Especially Russian intelligence organisations are active in Finland,” said Supo.

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