About 80 leading researchers at the universities of Oslo and Bergen have been exposed to a comprehensive targeted attack, probably ruled from Iran, PST warned. As the alarm went off, the universities carried out internal surveys, identifying 43 researchers hit in various attacks, national broadcaster NRK reported.
Hanne Blomberg of PST's section for state actors, which is responsible for preventing foreign intelligence activities in Norway and is specifically working to prevent access to knowledge pertaining to weapons of mass destruction, has confirmed Iran's support for the extensive hacking operation. According to him, it is a matter of obtaining valuable research material.
According to the University of Oslo, many researchers were subjected to a method called "fishing" that involves suspicious emails. A total of 24 researchers received emails offering cooperation from a German researcher based in Munich, whose account was found to be utilized by hackers. By clicking on the link provided in the email, the recipient entered a page that was quite similar to that of the university. If the victim entered his/her username and password, it was stolen and then used to log into databases and steal thousands of scientific articles, NRK reported.
Oslo University IT director Lars Oftedal said the attack was "professionally performed," venturing that more researchers could have been tricked.
"The letters were directed to chosen individuals; they were written in good English and included links to articles about them. So extensive research had been carried out," Oftedal explained.
According to the University of Bergen, 19 of their most famous researchers were exposed to the attack.
"We think this is highly regrettable. It's not that we don't want to share knowledge and information, but in this case our staff and our emails have been used for simple theft," University of Bergen rector Dag Rune Olsen said, stressing the hackers' professional approach. "Clearly, it couldn't have been carried out from the boys' room." According to Olsen, this was mainly carried out for the sake of profit, as it mostly occurred during the period of extensive international restrictions on Iran.
Hanne Blomberg of PST stressed that Norway is facing a plethora of threats, because the country is fully digitized and hence a vulnerable society.
"This case actually exemplifies what we experience from network operations in Norway. We are seeing high pressure put to bear on Norwegian businesses that is carried out by state actors, and this is just one of many such operations that we see in Norway," Blomberg said, venturing that Iran was but one of the actors running network operations against the Scandinavian country.
The attacks against Norway are seen as part of an extensive attack that hit 144 universities in the US and 176 universities in other countries. Subsequently, the FBI has charged nine Iranians working at the Mabna Institute in Iran of being part of a massive hacking scheme.