More than 10 high-performance data centers were hacked, including the one in Garching. They are used for research on Covid-19 therapies, but those concerned suspect other motives behind the attacks.

Dieter Kranzlmüller cannot explain what the hacker wanted. “Someone entered and manipulated the system. We don’t know exactly what he did,” says the head of the Leibniz data center in Garching near Munich. The SuperMUC-NG high-performance computer is located there. Kranzlmüller’s team had to take him off the internet this week after a hacker gained access to the system. The Cybercrime department in the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office investigated.

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The case shakes the research community, which relies on the expensive machines for its investigations. It is scattered around the world, but can no longer access computers online. In addition to Garching, Kranzlmüller says that more than ten high-performance data centers in different countries are affected, including those in Freiburg, Stuttgart and Jülich. Those responsible for the supercomputer Archer in Edinburgh call it a “serious problem across the academic community”.

High-performance computers are not comparable to PCs or normal data centers. Your computing power is several orders of magnitude higher. They can occupy hundreds of square meters and are mainly used for complex simulations where conventional computers fail. This includes calculations of weather conditions or molecules. This is why supercomputers are popular in pharmaceutical research, for example to find out how drugs interact with cells. This should save researchers from having to carry out expensive and lengthy laboratory tests.

It is unclear whether the hacker or the hackers have caused greater damage. From the so-called log files, which record activities on the computers, it is not evident that larger amounts of data have flowed away, says Kranzlmüller. The hack is still a problem. “The machines continue to work, but are cut off from the outside world.” Researchers could no longer access them remotely, which can bring their projects to a standstill.

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Because the manageable number of high-performance data centers cooperates closely. They provide computing power to researchers from around the world upon request. For example, if you have calculated the first simulations on a high-performance computer in Edinburgh, you can check the results on the slightly different machine in Garching.

In this case, the fact that the data centers cooperate so closely internationally was their undoing. “Obviously he managed to jump from center to center by hijacking certain user accounts,” says Kranzlmüller about the hacker. These accesses should be well protected. But once you have access, you can move around the network and access more than one of the supercomputers. Kranzlmüller says: “We are doing open science. It is therefore difficult to understand what the hacker wanted us to do.”

When searching for medication against Covid-19, some researchers put their hopes in the machines. In several high-performance data centers, they are currently calculating in millions of ways how different active ingredients can prevent the virus from docking onto human cells and thus make it harmless. Such Covid-19 simulations also ran in Garching.

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The FBI warned earlier this week that Chinese hackers may be hacking research into therapies for Covid-19. But Kranzlmüller says: “I would bet that it has nothing to do with Corona.” The data is useless for attackers anyway. “Only the scientist who does the simulation understands this. And afterwards he publishes his results anyway.” The attacks also had the mirror according to the beginning of January, before Covid-19 became a pandemic.