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The FBI and US Justice Department are investigating allegations that officials of US baseball team, the St Louis Cardinals, hacked into a database of the Houston Astros to steal detailed reports on players.
The Astros and the Cardinals were divisional rivals in the National League from 1994 to 2012, but the Astros moved to the American League in 2013.
The case could prove that cyber-enabled crime is carried out by competitors, not just anonymous criminal gangs for profit, and if the allegations prove to be true, it will be the first documented case of espionage in which one professional sports team has hacked into the network of a rival, according to The New York Times.
Baseballs officials said the purported cyber intrusion is being taken seriously in the sport, which relies heavily on data for managing players and schedules, reports The Washington Post.
Since the Oakland Athletics baseball team – featured in the book and film Moneyball – famously turned itself into a winning team by changing the way it operated in the early 2000s, data analytics has been used for selecting players, honing their talents and scouting rivals’ strengths and weaknesses.
The data contained in the database that was allegedly hacked has been likened to the intellectual property of any commercial enterprise.
The Cardinals issued a statement saying the team is co-operating with authorities – but the Astros have declined to comment while the investigation is in progress.
Houston Astros hacked before
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said subpoenas had been issued, but gave no details, reported The Seattle Times.
According to the paper, this was not the first time the Astros had been hacked. In 2014, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said his team had been the victim of hackers who accessed servers and published details of internal trade talks online.
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Luhnow, who has a technology background, began a dramatic technological overhaul of the Astros when he joined them from the Cardinals in 2011, and is the architect of the database that has allegedly been hacked.
Cyber espionage is a growing problem for commercial companies. In April 2015, US president Barack Obama issued an executive order allowing for financial sanctions against malicious foreign hackers and companies that benefit from cyber espionage.
The idea is that, where traditional diplomatic and law enforcement processes fail, the US can go after cyber attackers and the beneficiaries of cyber espionage by freezing their US assets and preventing them from operating in the US financial system.
The move was welcomed by global software industry advocacy group and BSA The Software Alliance, as well as other groups and individuals concerned about the theft of intellectual property and cyber security.