A Russian group could be behind hacking attempts – so far unsuccessful – on government computer systems that started when Malta assumed the EU presidency, a report commissioned by the State IT agency found.

A ‘threat intelligence report’ commissioned by Mita raised the possibility of Russian hackers, known as Fancy Bear, being behind an increase in hacking attempts on the government IT systems at the beginning of the year, sources close to the government said.

Mita executive chairman Tony Sultana would not comment on the report or its findings when contacted yesterday, saying only that “Fancy Bear and this matter are not news to me”. He said the agency was taking the matter very seriously but insisted he was not in a position to comment on matters of national security. He did admit, though, that the agency had spotted a “substantial increase” in attempted attacks on the government system in recent months.

“So far, none of our websites, e-mails or systems have been compromised and we are working hard to keep it that way,” Mr Sultana added.

Mita, he continued, had noted the increased number of attacks at the start of Malta’s presidency of the European Council in January. Overseas counterparts had, several weeks earlier, warned such a thing could happen.

We work hand-in-hand with other agencies across the EU and they keep us informed of potential dangers- Mita chairman

“We work hand-in-hand with other agencies across the EU and they keep us informed of potential dangers,” he said.

Mr Sultana said Mita normally received reports on threats, attacks and system shields’ performance on a monthly basis.

Throughout the past five months of the presidency, however, this had gradually increased to weekly reports and it was now receiving a report every day from EU counterparts.

“We even brought over some experts from agencies abroad to help us monitor our systems,” he said.

Although he was reluctant to comment on the type of increased threats or whether such spikes had ever been registered before, Mr Sultana said that “while we are concerned over the increase, it is important to keep in mind that it is not the amount of attacks but the quality [that matter]. It only takes one good attempt to get in.”

He said the reports being received from counterparts in neighbouring EU states also referred to chatter on the Darknet, a computer network with restricted access that is used chiefly for illegal peer-to-peer file sharing.

The Mita-commissioned report, sections of which were shown to this newspaper by the sources, said that when targeting a country’s IT systems, the hackers would normally attempt to infect the network with Malware.

This was normally done by launching “aggressive” phishing campaigns – attempts to obtain sensitive information, such as usernames or passwords, by disguising as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. 

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