Nation-State Hackers Targeting Data-Rich Winter Olympics

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By Daniel R. Stoller

Hackers focused on the data-rich Winter Olympics could cause serious disruptions for sponsors, vendors, advertisers, and other companies involved in PyeongChang 2018, cybersecurity pros told Bloomberg Law.

As the Olympics get more digital, creating an increasingly data-rich environment of consumer payments, corporate trade secrets, and similarly sensitive data, the risk of cyberattacks also grows, according to cybersecurity attorneys and pros. South Korea has already been a target of cyberattacks, and the region’s political tensions may also raise data security risk.

The Olympics are “a target-rich environment with a concentration of businesses, the world’s attention, and media coverage,” retired Major Gen. James ‘Spider’ Marks, president of corporate consultancy the Marks Collaborative in Washington, told Bloomberg Law.

That gives hackers an “opportunity to take advantage of it all,” he said.

Companies that experience a breach or cybersecurity incident during the games, which kick off Feb. 9, could also come under increased public scrutiny and face legal risks, pros said.

Major U.S. companies that are sponsoring the games include The Coca Cola Co., General Electric Co., Intel Corp., The Dow Chemical Co., and Visa Inc.

Although companies and Olympics organizers can do little to prevent cyberattacks, including those potentially emanating from North Korea, said Marks, they can improve their defenses through good cyberhygiene practices.

Nation-State Threats

North Korea, Russia, and China have all been active in launching cyberattacks, including 2017’s WannaCry ransomware attack, against companies and countries. Countries that set off cyberattacks typically have the money, manpower, and political motivation to launch more crippling attacks than the average cybercriminal.

There is a high-risk that “nation-states will take advantage of the Olympics” to launch a cybersecurity campaign against visitors, companies, employees, and organizers, Ryan Sherstobitoff, senior analyst in the advanced threat research team at McAfee in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg Law.

Nation-state hackers and other cybercriminals have already launched attacks targeting Olympic visitors, athletes, employees, government organizations, and corporate sponsors, according to a Feb. 7 McAfee Inc. report.

A cyberattack, dubbed GoldDragon, is targeting Olympic games affiliates by “accessing end-user systems and collecting data stored on the device and connected cloud accounts,” according to McAfee. The cyberattack may also be able to access sensitive customer, employee, personal, and financial data, the company said.

The GoldDragon cyberattack “has the hallmarks of a nation-state attack given the complexity and rapid adoption and deployment,” Sherstobitoff said.

Legal Risks

Companies involved in the Olympics could be legally liable if they experience a cybersecurity incident while in South Korea.

Business should review their contracts with vendors and the Olympics for who handles liabilities after a data breach, Marcus A. Christian, cybersecurity partner at Mayer Brown LLP in Washington and a former executive assistant U.S. attorney, told Bloomberg Law.

Companies that suffer a breach during the games may run into complex jurisdictional issues regarding data breach notification, regulator interactions, and local laws, Christian said.

Even if breached companies are not liable, they would still likely come under “increased scrutiny in the aftermath of a cybersecurity incident” back home in the U.S., he said.

Companies, overall, need to stay on high alert. “To enjoy significant opportunities, businesses will have to deal effectively with significant cybersecurity risks posed by increasingly numerous, aggressive, and capable threat actors, including North Korea,” Christian said.

Defensive Measures

Meanwhile, companies can take basic steps to help prevent cybersecurity problems at the games, including avoiding public Wi-Fi, security pros and attorneys said.

“The two deadliest words when you talk about online security is ‘free internet’ or ‘free Wi-Fi’,” Alan Brill, senior managing director of cybersecurity and investigation at consulting company Kroll Associates Inc. in Secaucus, N.J., told Bloomberg Law.

Other preventative measures could include maintaining secure connections such as virtual private networks (VPNs), and encrypting sensitive data that makes it harder for hackers to access.

Even with such measures, though, risk can only be reduced—not eliminated, Brill said.

“Cyberrisk can’t go down to zero,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel R. Stoller in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald Aplin at

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