The world’s largest casino market has become a magnet for sophisticated computer hackers—one of them possibly the U.S. government.
Macau’s 35 casinos raked in US$38 billion in gambling revenue in 2012—about six times the take on the Las Vegas Strip—and the total is expected to approach $45 billion this year. That all that money should prove irresistible to thieves is hardly surprising, just how irresistible is no doubt one of the territory’s better-kept secrets, although in one case earlier this year it was revealed that two 20-year old computer programmers from the neighboring mainland Chinese province of Guangdong were arrested in connection with a hacking attack that stole HK$3 million from a casino’s VIP account, a sizable sum, the equivalent of US$385,000 or GB£241,000.
More recently, though, some cyber-burglars of an entirely different order have stolen in, apparently after something far more valuable than money. Two have been made public. The latest occurred on the night of 6 October 2013, when the city’s monopoly Internet provider, Companhia de Telecomunicações de Macau, or CTM, acknowledged a “high volume of irregular overseas traffic flowing into its DNS Server”—the kind of activity usually associated with an attempted break-in.
This was not the case in July when government e-mail accounts provided by CTM were targeted by IP addresses traced to Hong Kong and the United States.
The head of the government, Chui Sai On, confirmed the attacks, but that was all.
This was one month after Edward Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, told the South China Morning Post that the NSA was engaged in extensive hacking in China and Hong Kong, raising suspicions that the United States government was also targeting Macau, which has been on the radar of U.S. law enforcement for years in connection with allegations that the city’s massive and loosely regulated casino industry is a conduit for money-laundering on a global scale.
Snowden, who is wanted in the United States on a slew of federal criminal charges, fled the country initially for Hong Kong, where he remained in hiding for a time before leaving for Russia, where he was granted asylum.
The reams of data Snowden brought out with him revealed that the NSA had hacked telecommunication companies in China, was launching sustained attacks on network backbones at Tsinghua University, the country’s premier institution for Internet research, and had compromised the computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, whose 46,000 kilometers of deep-water fiber optic cables connect data centers across East Asia—from Japan and South Korea and Taiwan to Hong Kong and mainland China.
Macau’s Secretary for Security Cheong Kuoc Va said that if necessary the government would enlist the assistance of Interpol in investigating the CTM attacks.
For now, both cases are being pursued by the Judiciary Police, the local law enforcement branch that handles major investigations. When they’ve concluded their work, the government would select “the appropriate time,” Chui said, “to provide the public with more information.”