Iranian hackers steal UK nuclear research
Highly sensitive British information stolen as university computers are breached in cyber attack
MILLIONS of documents, including sensitive research on nuclear power and cybersecurity, have been stolen from top British universities by Iranian hackers, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.
Infiltration of the elite British academic institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, comes ahead of a new round of sanctions against Tehran due to be imposed in November.
Several Farsi language websites have the hacked papers for sale, and offer to steal others on demand. While many are anodyne, others are on topics including nuclear development, and encryption of computer files.
The hack, which provides a backdoor to Western research, risks sparking deep displeasure in Washington, as Donald Trump’s administration seeks to isolate the regime in Tehran.
Last week, a State Department official warned companies in Europe to comply with the new sanctions or face retaliation from the US. Yet the security breach means Britain’s top universities are effectively already being used to circumvent the blockade, which bans the sale of academic papers to Iran.
Alistair Fenemore, the chief information security officer of Edinburgh University, which is among those to have had research papers stolen and sold online, confirmed that hackers had targeted the university, which is upgrading its computer network.
Mr Fenemore said that hackers had attempted to steal passwords by setting up fake login pages to trick staff and students into disclosing their details.
“Universities should be worrying about it,” said Dave Palmer, a former MI5 and GCHQ officer now at the cybersecurity company Darktrace. “If you’re doing stuff like working on the next helmet-mounted display for the fighter aircraft of the future, that is clearly of interest to adversarial states.”
The hack comes six months after the US Department of Justice revealed that Iranian hackers were targeting universities around the world.
To purchase the stolen papers, sometimes for as little as £2, customers in Iran send an encrypted message to a phone number using Whatsapp or Telegram. They are told to give the title of the paper they want, pay via a bank transfer and wait for a copy of the stolen paper to be sent by email.
Comments on the sites, written in Farsi, include requests for papers from academic databases. One person sought a paper on managing power plants “as soon as possible”. Another asked for the latest BMI Research report into business risk in Iran, which normally sells for more than £900.
The Iranian hack comes as Britain’s government-funded technology consultancy for higher education reveals that universities are blasé about the dangers posed by such hacking.
Of 114 UK universities and colleges surveyed by Jisc (formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee) only one said it was concerned about “nation state” attacks. Jens Monrad, from cybersecurity company Fireeye, said: “They are not addressing the threat landscape they face realistically.”
A spokesman for the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said: “NCSC experts work closely with the academic sector to protect education establishments from cyber threats.”