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Iran-based hacking group expanding spying operations in Middle East

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Security experts have further traced a number of subsequent attacks back to Iran, including hacks on Saudi, American and South Korean companies. Iran has not commented on those accusations.

In February, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNBC that Iran was “the most dangerous nation” for cyber threats.

“Iran is the only country that has attacked us repeatedly and tried to attack us repeatedly,” Al-Jubeir said. “In fact, they tried to do it on a virtually weekly basis.”

He added that Saudi Arabia is taking “all the steps necessary” to defend itself and training its people to “be able to engage in offensive operations to make it hopefully impossible for people to penetrate those systems.”

The Iranian government has previously denied accusations of cyber-aggression. It did not respond last month to a request for response to Al-Jubeir’s comments.

— CNBC’s Natasha Turak contributed to this report.

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Microsoft executive says workers slept in data centers during lockdown

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System administrator Alexander Landmann carries a server in the computer centre of Deutsche Bahn in Berlin on Oct. 22, 2020.

Britta Pedersen | picture alliance | Getty Images

Microsoft employees slept in the software company’s data centers during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, an executive said on Wednesday.

While many top technology companies directed their employees to work from home after Covid showed up in the U.S. in 2020, some employees were so important that they had to work on site. That was the case for a select few who worked at the locations containing the servers for online services like Microsoft Teams, as well as public-cloud infrastructure powering third-party customers’ applications.

“I heard amazing stories about people actually sleeping in data centers,” Kristen Roby Dimlow, corporate vice president for total rewards, performance and human resources business insights, said during a conversation with Morgan Stanley analysts Josh Baer and Mark Carlucci. “In certain countries there was huge lockdown, and so we would have our own employees choose to sleep in the data center because they were worried they’d get stuck at a roadblock, trying to go home.”

Generally data centers are not places where people sleep. Aisles can be hot from air coming off of servers, and cold because of air conditioning to prevent machines from overheating. A Microsoft spokesperson would not say where employees slept in data centers or how many did it.

The company changed several aspects of work at its data centers because of the pandemic, Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president for the company’s Cloud Operations and Innovation group, said in an interview with CNBC in April.

Employees were allowed to work from home if they felt anxious about coming to data centers, Walsh said. If people didn’t want to take the bus, the company provided transportation to and from data centers and even allowed people to stay in hotels, she said.

“We had to in some cases go to shift work, day and night, to get the work done within the same schedule,” Walsh said.

WATCH: Why data centers were the top real estate sector of 2020

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What is monero? New cryptocurrency of choice for cyber criminals

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When the FBI successfully breached a crypto wallet held by the Colonial Pipeline hackers by following the money trail on bitcoin’s blockchain, it was a wake-up call for any cyber criminals who thought transacting in cryptocurrency automatically protected them from scrutiny.

One of the core tenets of bitcoin is that its public ledger, which stores all token transactions in its history, is visible to everyone. This is why more hackers are turning to coins like dash, zcash, and monero, which have additional anonymity built into them.

Monero, in particular, is increasingly the cryptocurrency of choice for the world’s top ransomware criminals.

“The more savvy criminals are using monero,” said Rick Holland, chief information security officer at Digital Shadows, a cyberthreat intelligence company.

Created in 2014

Monero was released in 2014 by a consortium of developers, many of whom chose to remain anonymous. As spelled out in its white paper, “privacy and anonymity” are the most important aspects of this digital currency.

The privacy token operates on its own blockchain, which hides virtually all transaction details. The identity of the sender and recipient, as well as the transaction amount itself, are disguised.

Because of these anonymity features, monero allows cyber criminals greater freedom from some of the tracking tools and mechanisms that the bitcoin blockchain offers.

“On the bitcoin blockchain, you can see what wallet address transacted, how many bitcoin, where it came from, where it’s going,” explained Fred Thiel, former chairman of Ultimaco, one of the largest cryptography companies in Europe, which has worked with Microsoft, Google and others on post-quantum encryption.

“With monero, [the blockchain] obfuscates the wallet address, the amount of the transactions, who the counter-party was, which is pretty much exactly what the bad actors want,” he said.

With monero, they’re obfuscating the wallet address, the amount of the transactions, who the counter-party was, which is pretty much exactly what the bad actors want.

Fred Thiel

CEO, Marathon Digital Holdings

While bitcoin still dominates ransomware demands, more threat actors are starting to ask for monero, according to Marc Grens, president of DigitalMint, a company that helps corporate victims pay ransoms. 

“We’ve seen REvil…give discounts or request payments in monero, just in the past couple months,” continued Holland.

Monero was also a popular choice on AlphaBay, a massive underground marketplace popular up until it was shut down in 2017.

“It’s almost like we’re seeing, at least from a cyber criminal perspective, a resurgence…in monero, because it has inherently more privacy than some of the other coins out there,” Holland said of monero’s recent rise in popularity among actors in the ransomware space.

Monero’s limitations

There are, however, a few major barriers when it comes to the mainstreaming of monero.

For one, it’s not as liquid as other cryptocurrencies – many regulated exchanges have chosen not to list it due to regulatory concerns, explained Mati Greenspan, portfolio manager and Quantum Economics founder. “It certainly isn’t enjoying as much from the recent wave of institutional investments,” he said.

In practice, that means that it’s harder for cyber criminals to get paid directly in the currency.

“If you’re a corporation and you want to acquire a bunch of monero to pay somebody, it’s very hard to do,” Thiel told CNBC. 

The digital currency could also be more vulnerable to regulation at its on-and-off-ramps, which is the bridge between fiat cash and crypto tokens. 

“I would wager to say the U.S. and other regulators are going to shut them [monero] down pretty hard,” said Thiel.

One way they could go about that: telling an exchange that if they list monero, they risk losing their license.  

But while the U.S. government can indeed keep monero at bay by marginalizing liquidity points, Castle Island Ventures founding partner Nic Carter believes that markets which allow peer-to-peer transfers of monero to fiat will always be hard to regulate. 

There’s also nothing to keep hackers within U.S. jurisdiction. Criminals could easily choose to carry out all of their transactions overseas, in places that aren’t subject to the kind of controls American regulators might put in place.

Bitcoin still rules ransomware

Cyber insurance is another reason why bitcoin is still the currency of choice for most ransomware attacks.

“Insurance is so important in this space, and insurers often refuse to reimburse a ransom payment if it’s been in monero,” said former CIA case officer Peter Marta, who now advises companies about cyber risk management as a partner with law firm Hogan Lovells. 

“One of the things that insurers will always ask for is what type of due diligence the victim company conducted, before making the payment…to try to minimize the chance that the payment goes to an entity on the sanctions list,” explained Marta. 

Traceability is more easily accomplished with bitcoin, given that its blockchain lays bare transaction amounts and the addresses of both the sender and recipients taking part in the exchange. There is also an established infrastructure already in place for officials to monitor these transactions.

Authorities keep lists of bitcoin wallets, which are tied to different sanctions regimes.

While monero does offer a greater degree of privacy over bitcoin, Holland points out that threat actors have mastered certain techniques to anonymize transactions in bitcoin, in order to obscure the chain of custody. 

He says that cyber criminals often turn to a mixing or tumbling service, where they can combine the illicit funds with clean crypto to essentially make a new type of bitcoin, at which point, they turn to currency swaps. 

“Just like you would do dollars to pounds…they may go bitcoin, to monero, then back to bitcoin, and then get a bitcoin ATM card, where they can just cash out dollars with it,” explained Holland.

So even though bitcoin’s blockchain is public, there are still ways to make it difficult for investigators to trace transactions to their ultimate destination. 

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Property group Alliance Global aims to become more sustainable

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A combination of a delicate natural environment and increasing poverty is encouraging the son of a billionaire business founder to improve their company’s sustainable and social efforts.

Property group Alliance Global is based in the Philippines, which — being an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands — is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, as CEO Kevin Tan described.

“We’re located in a very unique and rather precarious geographic location,” Tan said. “Every year, we experience several calamities, ranging from simple tropical depressions to typhoons to even prolonged droughts and dry spells … In recent years, we have actually seen these occurrences happen more frequently, and with a much higher ferocity,” he added.

Founded by Tan’s father Andrew Tan in 1993, Alliance Global operates in real estate, hospitality and food, with assets including casino and hotel complex Resorts World Manila, and the world’s largest brandy distiller, Emperador. It is also the main McDonald’s franchise holder in the Philippines, via its Golden Arches Development Corporation.

Alongside this, the country has a poverty problem: The World Bank estimates that there will have been 2 million more poor Filipinos in 2020 than there were in 2018 due to the coronavirus pandemic, per a June report — the country has a total population of 108 million.

And according to Tan, a shifting population is also putting pressure on resources. “(There is an) uneven sort of distribution of population growth towards the urban centers versus the rural centers of our country. And … it poses several challenges — among them is really this unequal distribution of economic opportunities,” he said.

The Philippines’ environmental and economic issues spurred Alliance Global to identify two goals: becoming carbon neutral by 2035 and creating 5 million jobs, either directly or indirectly, by the same date. “We decided we wanted to be … better corporate citizens,” Tan said. However, the pandemic meant that the firm extended its deadline for both from 2030. “Nothing could have prepared us for this. I have to admit, yes, of course we had to step back a bit, because we were on survivor mode for the most part of last year and even until today, we’ve had to recalibrate our entire business model. We’ve had to … reduce our costs,” Tan explained.

Alliance Global’s Emperador is the world’s largest brandy distiller.

Jay Directo | AFP | Getty Images

The firm’s net income reduced by 62% year-over-year to 10.3 billion pesos ($216 million) in 2020, although several of its businesses recovered during the fourth quarter. McDonald’s revenue went up 36% compared with the previous quarter, while liquor sales at Emperador rose 42% over the same period.

Making its alcohol operations more environmentally-friendly has been a focus for Alliance Global: At Emperador the firm uses biogas created from the distilling process to fuel its boilers. In turn, the boilers produce steam, which powers turbines and creates electricity. Around 30% of the company’s distillery operations are powered this way, while vineyards producing grapes for its Fundador brandy in Spain use a process called deficit irrigation, where only the areas that need water are given it.

When it comes to economic development, Tan said the company’s Megaworld “township” residential and office complexes are creating jobs. He singled out Iloilo, a development on the Philippines’ Panay Island, where there is a focus on business process outsourcing (BPO), a practice where firms contract some of their operations to external suppliers. Such BPO companies are growing — and they need office space, Tan said. “Traditionally, the BPO sector was dominated by health care, travel, and financial services. Because of the pandemic, new industries have been introduced to outsourcing, for example logistics, technology, and e-commerce,” he explained.

Alliance Global is also looking to reduce waste in its developments. “We collect all the plastics from all of our developments, from all of our communities, we put them together and … cement factories, they take this plastic and use it as fuel,” Tan said.

Tan claimed the firm now looks at a “triple” bottom line. “Profitability is obviously still very important … But when we look at things now, we look at … not just having a singular bottom line, but having a triple bottom line, and that now includes, of course, environmental sustainability, as well as our social impact.”

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