FutureFive New Zealand logo
Consumer technology news from the future
Story image

The biggest cyber-attacks of 2021 in New Zealand

By Jonathan Cotton
Tue 5 Oct 2021

By any measure, it’s been a bumper year for cyber incursion in Aotearoa New Zealand, with organisations big and small, public and private, falling victim to hackers from around the globe.

We were already on an upward trajectory: according to New Zealand’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), there were some 350+ cybersecurity incidents recorded in New Zealand over the 2019/2020 period (slightly up on previous numbers), and including malware, phishing attempts, supply chain attacks, malware-as-a-service and more. 

With high profile breaches making the headlines with troubling regularity, we take a look at New Zealand’s year in cyber attacks so far and ask: who got compromised? Who did it? And what does it all mean for data security in New Zealand?  

Unhappy New Year for RBNZ

As 2020 ticked over to 2021, it was to be anything like a happy new year for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which, though not aware of it, had suffered a serious data breach just days earlier. 

The attack had come by way of a third-party file-sharing software application – Accellion FTA – that the Bank used to store and share information. Access was obtained by exploiting a previously unknown vulnerability in the FTA application, with customer information around dates of birth, credit details and personal email addresses accessed. 

The Bank appointed KPMG to undertake a full review and accepted the conclusions of the report, which found that even though Accellion was aware of the vulnerability in December, the email tool used by Accellion failed to send the email notifications. Since then, other attacks have occurred via the Accellion software, including one against US financial giant Morgan Stanley. 

The breach ended up costing around NZ$3.5m with Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr admitting that the agency was “over reliant on Accellion” to alert them to any vulnerabilities in the system.

“In this instance, their notifications to us did not leave their system and hence did not reach the Reserve Bank in advance of the breach.”

“We received no advance warning.”

The Reserve Bank has now been issued a compliance notice from the Privacy Commission - the first since the Act came into force in December 2020.  

“The cyber attack was a significant breach of one of the Bank’s security systems and raised the possibility of systemic weakness in the Bank’s systems and processes for protecting personal information,” said the Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, adding that the Privacy Commission was, however, “heartened by the speed and thoroughness of the Bank’s response”. 

March misery for Microsoft Exchange

In March, reports surfaced that cyber attackers had exploited four hitherto unknown vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange, granting the threat actors access to the Microsoft Exchange Server. 

One of the most popular email platforms in the world, the attack affected between 30,000 and 60,000 organisations, with government cybersecurity agency CERT NZ identifying and over 100 compromised local email servers. 

“The attackers begin by scanning for vulnerable targets on the internet,” explains CERT in its analysis of the event. “The attackers then send a malicious request to the server to gain unauthenticated access.” 

Once they had access, the hackers deployed a web shell (a malicious script that can be used to launch attacks via a compromised web server) that allowed them to steal data, view and send emails on the server and carry out further malicious activity - including ransomware attacks, phishing and invoice scams.

As for the perpetrators, Microsoft, along with the New Zealand Government, the US, the UK, Australia, has publicly pointed the finger at China, saying that it is Chinese state-sponsored actors responsible for the breach.

“We call for an end to this type of malicious activity, which undermines global stability and security, and we urge China to take appropriate action in relation to such activity emanating from its territory,” said GCSB Minister Andrew Little. 

Also receiving bad news in March, Air New Zealand Airpoints members were contacted by the airline with news of a data breach involving its frequent flyer program.  

A “highly sophisticated attack” according to Air New Zealand, the breach occurred via airline passenger processing system provider, SITA.

“SITA acted swiftly and initiated targeted containment measures,” explained Air New Zealand in an official statement. 

Air New Zealand said that only name, tier status and membership number information was accessed and that users' passport numbers, credit card information and contact information had not been acquired by the hackers.

Also in March: Lumino had little to smile about when it announced that a Wellington office had also suffered a breach, with personal patient information accessed. 

Lumino NZ GM Phillip Worsely called the situation “incredibly disappointing and frustrating” and said the company would do what it takes to “make sure it can't happen again”. 

April saw Allied Press contacted by CERT NZ about a data breach affecting its ODT Archive service. Luckily, the breach was relatively minor - the service was immediately taken offline - and those affected were contacted immediately. 

Smaller organisations can be particularly vulnerable to these sorts of attacks, says Rizwan Asghar, senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science at The University of Auckland. 

With SMEs making up 99% of the businesses in New Zealand - and contributing much to the digital economy - the government should be doing a bit more, he says. 

“Often SMEs don't have enough money to spend on things like cybersecurity awareness, infrastructure, updates and services and those sorts of things. There are already some initiatives in place and I acknowledge that, but there's more that must be done.”

“We need to be more proactive. It’s not enough to say ‘we have defined these guidelines and policies, now it's your responsibility to follow them’. We have health and safety standards when we go to any business, but in the digital world we don't have anything of that sort. We have guidelines but no regulation.” 

“It’s something the Government has to do. They have to play their role proactively, instead of reactively responding to cybersecurity incidents.”  

Waikato DHB’s horrible, no good, very bad May

In May a cyber attack on the Waikato DHB pushed the health system offline, impacting clinical services throughout the Waikato, Thames, Tokoroa, Te Kuiti and Taumarunui hospitals, resulting in some surgeries being postponed and payroll schedules disrupted. 

Testing labs and certain cancer treatments, as well as email and phone communications, were also interrupted.  

The ransomers contacted the hospital threatening to release private patient data if a payment wasn’t made. The DHB wouldn’t pay, and a “substantial amount” of very private information was subsequently posted online and to the media, including staff data, payroll information, patient records, photographs and more. 

The attack was ultimately blamed on the Conti ransomware-as-a-service organisation. The gang is alleged to have also attacked Ireland's Department of Health, the country’s publicly-funded health system, Health Service Executive, as well as Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and a UK-based fashion retailer.

Health organisations are popular targets for hackers and need to take special care, especially in New Zealand, says Asghar.

“We know that the New Zealand healthcare system is very fragmented in terms of infrastructure,” he says. “We have medical centres, we have district health boards, we have hospitals, all with multiple systems that are not very well connected.”

“They are each responsible for their own IT security and one health board doesn't necessarily have the same security infrastructure or resources as another.”

“This is the problem: there is no coordinated approach to cybersecurity policies and infrastructure.”

Asghar says that New Zealand’s health infrastructure needs a more disciplined approach to data security. 

“The question is: are we regularly having regular compliance checks and auditing just like we do for other services?”

“Many medical centres and medical units buy the system once and use it for many years, forgetting about conducting audits or updates to make sure they can cope with more sophisticated cyber attacks.”

It wasn't just health services doing damage control in the mid-year. June saw Gisborne law firm Woodward Chrisp’s servers hit by a ransomware attack, encrypting and disabling access to certain private files. Though an approach was made, the firm refused to bow to the hackers’ demands, with the company’s technology provider Infinity IT saying that the affected files had been backed up and that Woodward Chrisp’s systems would be fully restored. 

Panic in July

By July New Zealand had become caught up in the giant Kaseya VSA ransomware attack that was spreading around the globe. 

Kaseya is a California-based company known for its IT management software. The source of the outbreak was Kaseya’s Virtual System Administrator software package - technology used by some schools and other businesses in New Zealand. 

As news of the suspected breach spread, schools around the country rushed to shut down their software before they too were infected. Indeed, the news of the hack caused something of a panic: at first, it was thought that 11 New Zealand schools had been affected. That number was, however, later downgraded to two. 

While precautionary measures mitigated much of the damage, worldwide the impact was significant. Kaseya estimates that between 800 and 1,500 organisations were affected, while the organisation responsible - the Russia-based REvil ransomware-as-a-service organisation - claimed to have encrypted more than a million systems during the attack. 

Also in July, the Department of Conservation’s Aoraki Mt. Cook Search and Rescue admitted it had fallen victim to a ransomware attack, treading on the privacy of eleven nature-loving tourists. There was no further impact on DOC’s systems. 

DDoS attacks persist through September

In September Vocus NZ - the owner of Orcon, Slingshot and Stuff Fibre - managed to knock some of its own customers offline while helping another customer deal with a denial of service attack. While attempting to filter out the traffic bombarding the customer, things went awry, triggering a larger disruption across the network which lasted about an hour. 

On the 8th of September organisations across New Zealand experienced a series of coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, affecting high-profile local brands such as NZ Post, Inland Revenue, MetService, Kiwibank and ANZ. 

The hack resulted in temporary outages and some bank customers were locked out of their accounts. Currently, CERT NZ is monitoring the situation with the ongoing impact expected to be small. 

While the recent attacks have caused minimal disruption, Asghar says it’s a troubling trend and a sign that New Zealand organisations need to be more vigilant about data security.

“Last year the NZX was under attack for a number of days,” says Asghar. “This year, it’s all this critical infrastructure such as Kiwibank, ANZ, New Zealand Post and Vocus that are under these same kinds of DDoS attacks.”

“I think New Zealand’s cybersecurity strategy policies - especially the action points - are not what they should be.” 

“Organisations should be learning from these lessons, especially in terms of our critical infrastructure. They could be preparing better for these cyber attacks, but at the moment it looks like something is missing.”

Public Interest Journalism Fund logo
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
Related stories
Top stories
Story image
Research shows attacks on the gaming industry are getting worse
Web application attacks in the gaming sector have grown by 167% from Q1 2021 to Q1 2022, according to new research from Akamai.
Story image
Norton research finds NZ threat landscape diversifying on social media
Norton's quarterly report has highlighted the seriousness of the threat landscape in New Zealand.
Story image
Tablets & laptops
Hands-on review: Xencelabs Graphic Display Tablet
Xencelabs seemed to show up out of nowhere on the market. I had no idea who they were or what they were about, but I was very intrigued.
Story image
Tablets & laptops
Chromebook and tablet shipments see another rapid decline for the year
According to research from Canalys PC Analysis, Chromebook and tablet shipments have fallen for the fourth quarter in a row for Q2 of 2022.
Story image
Chorus announces Hyperfibre sponsorship deal with NZ Esports
Chorus has put its support behind New Zealand's Esports community with a newly announced three-year Hyperfibre sponsorship deal with NZ Esports.
Story image
Hands-on review: James Donkey RS4 Knight Wireless Gaming Keyboard
I have always liked mechanical keyboards, and this is no exception. I find the action much easier to use than the modern keyboards with limited travel.
Story image
Comedy legend Jimeoin fronts Epson advertising campaign in NZ and Australia
According to Epson the company’s EcoTank models now account for 74% of all printers sold in the category in New Zealand, alone.
Story image
Logitech G’s new Aurora collection looks to help change gaming stereotypes
The company’s new Aurora collection is designed to be gender inclusive, not gender exclusive, addressing the needs and wants of women gamers while also still appealing to a wider general audience.
Story image
Game review: The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle
This year's major expansion to The Elder Scrolls Online, Zenimax Online's acclaimed massively multiplayer online role-playing game, takes players to the land of the Bretons: High Isle.
Story image
Hands-on review: Norton Secure VPN
Norton is obviously serious about your privacy. They have a “No-log” policy, which simply means that they do not track or store any of your on-line activities.
Story image
Minors using Discord servers to spread malware for cash
Avast has discovered an online community of minors constructing, exchanging and spreading malware, including ransomware and a mix of information stealers and cryptominers.
Story image
New ASB campaign helps young people better understand money
ASB is helping 18 to 24-year-olds take advantage of financial possibilities and better understand the world of money.
Story image
Xreart Studio - Turning old masterpieces into new ones
Xreart now specialises in transforming pre-loved smartphones, smartwatches and handheld game consoles into artistic conversation starters for your office, studio or man cave.
Story image
Game review: Disgaea 6 Complete
Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny originally came out in 2021, and more than a year later, the game has now been re-released.
Story image
Crypto app downloads down as market crashes - report
It appears the mass FOMO around crypto investing may be wearing thin with new data revealing a noticeable drop in crypto app downloads this year.
Story image
Microsoft and Auckland Transport announce new cloud agreement
Auckland Transport (AT) and Microsoft have announced a new cloud agreement aimed at promoting innovation, reducing costs and improving sustainability in transport services.
Story image
Hands-on review: Logitech Astro A10 Gen 2 wired headset
We get our hands on this incredibly good value for money headset for use in wired environments.
Story image
InternetNZ appoints new chief executive. Will take over in October
InternetNZ has announced the appointment of its new chief executive, with Vivien Maidaborn taking over the role from interim chief Andrew Cushen in October.
Story image
Major media companies sign new online safety framework for Aotearoa
A new joint development between Netsafe and some of the world's leading social media companies is set to provide Kiwis with safer online experiences.
Story image
Everything we know so far about NBA 2K23
As excitement for the next iteration of 2K Games’ NBA basketball series builds, some new information on the upcoming game, NBA 2K23, has been released.
Story image
Hands-on review: Obsbot Me AI-powered mobile phone mount
The Obsbot Me is an independently controlled portable mobile phone mount that can track its target without the need for software or a connection to a phone.
Story image
Freelance tech jobs boom, NFTs and crypto plunge following crash
"Jobs for NFTs and crypto have dominated the past few quarters of our Fast 50 report, but as you can see they're now falling sharply."
Story image
Hands-on review: TCL 30 SE mobile phone
TCL continues to provide consumers with budget phones that still pack a punch with the TCL 30 SE mobile phone. 
Story image
Hands-on review: SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro gaming headset
SteelSeries, being no stranger to creating premium gaming peripherals, sent over its Arctis Nova Pro wired headset kit for us to take a look at.
Story image
Virtual Reality / VR
Virtual reality app reduces phobias through NZ trial
"With this VR app treatment, trialists had increased control in exposure to their fears, as well as control over when and where exposure occurs."
Story image
Hands-on review: SteelSeries Apex Pro Mini Keyboard
SteelSeries has taken the design of its range of Apex keyboards to create a smaller version, the Apex Pro Mini. Techday’s Darren Price checks it out.
Story image
I-Pro officially marks launch of brand in Australia and New Zealand
I-Pro has officially launched in Australia and New Zealand, following a series of new releases as an entity that started in early April.
Story image
Digital key for smart investment in public infrastructure for NZ cities
Major public infrastructure projects can better manage risks of cost overruns and delays if they deploy data and digital tools at the earliest planning stages.
Story image
Hands-on review: Jabra Engage 55 wireless headset
We get our hands on a German design professional headset that many knowledge workers could benefit from.
Story image
Wave Audio spices up portfolio with first ever party speaker
Australian-based pioneers Wave Audio are enhancing their extensive range of groundbreaking new audio products by adding one of the most versatile speakers on the market to their growing portfolio.
Story image
Dark web
Deep web vs dark web: NortonLifeLock explains the difference
NortonLifeLock managing director for APAC Mark Gorrie explains what you need to know about the deep and dark web and the pros and cons of both.
Story image
Hands-on review - Xbox Cloud Gaming
I've had the opportunity not just to access the game pass but also its new shiny feature, Xbox Cloud Gaming. In this review, we'll be deep-diving into just what Xbox Cloud Gaming is, how it works and, well, if it works.
Story image
Hands-on review: BenQ GV30 portable projector
The BenQ GV30 is a portable projector that excels in many aspects but comes up short in a couple of others.
Story image
Tablets & laptops
Hands-on review: HP Evo Spectre X360 Flip Ultrabook 13.5” laptop
The Spectre comes with a keyboard that makes working for long hours something to be looked forward to. It has to be one of the best keyboards I have seen on a 13.5” laptop.
Story image
2degrees launches 13 new 5G coverage areas, network upgrades
2degrees has announced it has launched 13 new 5G areas in June, as the company continues its 5G rollout and investment.
Story image
Orcon brings faster fibre to Christchurch with Hyperfibre offering
Orcon has today launched the next generation of fibre speeds in Christchurch, bringing its Hyperfibre offering to the city.
Story image
Hands-on impressions with PlayStation Plus Deluxe
Finally, the new PlayStation Plus subscription tiers are available now to both New Zealand and Australian PS5 and PS4 gamers.
Story image
Game review: Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series
If there's something missing in today's gaming industry, it's the wonderful discovery of finding new games for hire at your local video rental store. I remember my family hired out the first Klonoa game for the PSOne back in 1997, and it was a blast to play as a kid.
Story image
Wave Audio delivers ultimate immersion with new wireless earbuds
Wave Audio, one of Australia's best new audio brands, has recently released a set of landmark noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds, the Immersive Pro.
Story image
Hands-on review: STM ChargeTreeGo portable wireless charger
We get our hands on the ultimate charging accesory for roadwarriors with a bunch of Apple devices.
Story image
Game review: Wreckfest (Nintendo Switch)
Wreckfest is a fun racing game that came out for multiple different gaming platforms a few years ago. One of the best things about the game is that it's relatively cheap to buy if you own a PS4 or Xbox One console.
Story image
Online bullying, harassment skyrockets since COVID outbreak
Harmful content reports have risen by over 25% since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, according to Netsafe.