Gamblers and hackers alike flock to Macau, the world’s casino capital

October 8, 2013
October 8, 2013

Macau, the Portuguese-influenced region on the southern coast of China is famed for its money-spinning casinos and the UNESCO-listed ruins of a 17th century Catholic cathedral. It also appears to be a recent magnet for hackers.

The area’s only internet provider, Companhia de Telecomunicações de Macau, or CTM, said in a statement Monday it had “detected high volume of irregular overseas traffic flowing into its DNS Server,” on the evening of Oct. 6, activity generally associated with attempts to break into a server. This attack was repelled by the company’s firewall.

CTM wasn’t as fortunate in July, when Macau government email accounts were targeted. The IP addresses in the attack were traced to Hong Kong and the United States, Macau authorities said then. Whether that attack was a criminal attempt at theft, or a heavy-handed spying technique from the US or Chinese government has not been determined.

In June, Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor, told the South China Morning Post that the agency had accessed computers and mobile phones in China and Hong Kong, raising suspicions that the United States government was also targeting Macau. Macau officials said they have sent an official letter to the US Consulate in Hong Kong asking if they were a NSA target, and to authorities in Hong Kong.

What, exactly, the US or Chinese government would want to learn from Macau government email is a bit unclear. Like Hong Kong, it is a  special administrative region within China that operates as a semi-independent city-state, with its own laws and police force. While it is home to a 1,000 unit military garrison run by China, the area’s main focus is gambling and tourism.

Macau bypassed Las Vegas years ago as the world’s biggest gambling center and continues to make gains.  Macau’s gambling revenue in the month September was $3.63 billion, up 21% from a year ago, as affluent Chinese continued to flock to the country’s only legal gambling site. In contrast, gambling revenue for all of Nevada, including Las Vegas, was just $1.9 billion in the first eight months of 2013.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all that cash has proved attractive to hackers too. In January, two 20-year old computer programmers from Guangdong, China, were arrested in connection with a hacking attack that stole HK $3 million ($386,900) from a casino’s VIP account. At least in that case, the motive is clear.

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