Beijing Braces for Olympic Cyber-War

Can the world's most futuristic data center protect the Olympics' storage?

By James Rogers, August 4, 2008, 9:10 AM

With the world’s eyes firmly focused on Beijing, officials and IT staff are bracing themselves for a flood of cyber-attacks when the Olympic Games begin later this week.

For months now, there has been growing speculation that the Games’ Websites and back-end storage infrastructure could be targeted when the Olympic flame is lit in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium on Friday, either by cybercriminals or political activists.

“It’s always hard to predict these things, but it wouldn’t be a surprise,” says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at security analyst firm Sophos, alluding, in particular, to the pro-Tibet movement. “There are some people that have an axe to grind against the Chinese government and could see it as an opportunity to have a cyber-attack.”

The analyst explains that there is also the threat of “financially motivated attacks” from shadowy underworld organizations that are employing ever-more sophisticated techniques to steal personal data.

”There have been incidents before when athletes have been targeted for ID theft,” says Cluley, using the example of soccer’s recent African Cup of Nations, when some competitors’ passport data ended up on the Web.

In addition to data on more than 10,000 athletes and 70,000-plus volunteers and officials, the Olympic organizers will also be storing masses of other sensitive information, such as credit card details on millions of spectators.

Atos Origin, which is the Olympics’ IT partner, told Byte and Switch that it is fully prepared for a deluge of attacks on its network of 1,000 servers.

”Estimated security alert events from different IT systems could be more than 200 million during the Olympic Games time,” explained an Atos Origin spokeswoman, in an email. “We have built a sophisticated real-time security monitoring system to monitor every network port and PC running on this network [and] very high standard system hardening has been applied to all IT systems.”

Atos Origin is understandably wary of divulging specifics of its security strategy, although the vendor confirmed that it will be using around 1,000 network and security devices during the Beijing Games, which run until August 24.

As for the Games’ back-end storage systems, the spokeswoman revealed that Atos Origin is using both SAN and NAS technology provided by Chinese technology giant Lenovo and Sun Microsystems.

Primary and secondary data centers have been built to host the storage gear, along with more than 40 smaller data centers at various Games venues, according to the spokeswoman. “In the primary data center and the secondary data center, there are two separated power feeds from different power stations,” she said.

Although the spokeswoman would not divulge the location of these facilities, officials have characterized "Digital Beijing," the Olympics’ main data center, as the Games' information nerve-center.

Opened last year, the 11-story building, which spans more than a million square feet, is located in the Chinese Capital’s Olympic Park, and is arguably the most futuristic-looking data center in the world. Side-on, the facility has been designed to look like a gigantic circuit-board, and the ends of the building have been built to look like enormous bar-codes.

Officials describe Digital Beijing as an “information service center for the municipal government's data storage, information security, emergency-response command, and information service,” adding that the site will also serve as a communication hub for other Olympic sites in areas such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin.

Despite such state-of-the-art facilities, there is still unease in many quarters about the possibility of a major Beijing data breach.

Last month, for example, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. government officials were debating whether to warn business-people and other travelers visiting Beijing of the dangers of being hacked.

Officials were concerned about the risk of information being copied from laptops in hotel rooms or airports, according to the report, which also highlighted the risk of data being "slurped" using Bluetooth technology.

As well as the security risk to portable devices, hackers are also likely to target the Games’ Websites during the next few weeks, according to Sophos analyst Cluley.

”Hopefully nothing will happen [but] the hackers know that these will be popular sites,” he said, but he warns that the Websites for major sporting events have been hacked before, and been left hosting malicious code. “Last year, in the run-up to the Miami Superbowl, the [Dolphins stadium] Website was hacked and was hosting malware; also the ATP tennis tour Website was hacked during Wimbledon this year and was hosting malware.”

Last week, security specialist Secure Computing also reported a spike of as many as 360 million spam messages pertaining to the Olympics.

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  • Atos Origin S.A.
  • Lenovo Group Ltd.
  • Secure Computing Corp. (Nasdaq: SCUR)
  • Sophos plc
  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: JAVA)