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Cyber criminals take aim at US$600bn global sports market

Christopher Tredger
By Christopher Tredger, Portals editor
Johannesburg, 18 Aug 2023
Major sporting and entertainment events present a lucrative target for cyber criminals, warns Microsoft.
Major sporting and entertainment events present a lucrative target for cyber criminals, warns Microsoft.

Microsoft anticipates large scale sporting and entertainment events in Africa will continue to attract cyber threats.

The company has released the findings of its latest Cyber Signals report which highlights threats to large venues, and sporting and entertainment events. It is based on Microsoft’s learnings and telemetry from having delivered cyber security support to critical infrastructure facilities during Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Microsoft's report says IT systems at venues and arenas contain hundreds of known and unknown vulnerabilities that allow threat actors to target critical business services such as point-of-sale devices, IT infrastructures, and visitor devices. Additionally, teams, coaches, and athletes themselves are also vulnerable to data loss on athletic performance, competitive advantage, and personal information.

While providing cyber security defences for Qatari facilities and organisations, Microsoft monitored more than 100 000 endpoints, 144 000 identities, 14.6 million plus e-mail flows, over 634.6 million authentications, and billions of network connections.

Colin Erasmus, chief operations officer at Microsoft South Africa, says, “Major sporting events are complex and target-rich and with the global sports market valued at more than US$600 billion, sports teams, global sporting associations, and attendees house a trove of valuable information desirable to cyber criminals." 

Nation states have been known to absorb collateral damage from attacks if it supports broader geopolitical interests, he says, and cyber criminal groups will continue to target global events due to the vast financial opportunities that exist in sporting and venue-related IT environments. "The huge swell of attendees and staff that bring data and information with them through their own devices increases the attack surface and can also be targeted through vulnerable event digital amenities, like companion mobile apps, wireless hotspots, and QR codes with malicious URLs."

Africa ups spending

Erasmus refers to statistics from Startup.Africa which suggest that sport technology funding in Africa tripled between November 2020 and April 2022.

“African entrepreneurs are looking to cash in on the $600 billion global sports market, but so are criminals,” he says.

Microsoft’s advice for protecting sport ecosystems

  • Connected video boards, digital signage: Disable any unnecessary ports and ensure proper network scanning for rogue or ad hoc wireless access points.
  • Wi-Fi hotspots, mobile apps, and QR codes: Encourage attendees to secure their apps and devices with latest updates and patches, avoid accessing sensitive information from public Wi-Fi, avoid links, attachments, and QR codes from unofficial sources.
  • Point of sale (POS) and wider commerce systems: Ensure POS devices are patched, up to date, and connected to a separate network. Also, attendees should beware of unfamiliar kiosks and ATMs and limit transactions to areas officially endorsed by the event host.
  • Stadium access and infrastructure equipment: Develop logical network segmentations to create divisions between IT and Operational Technology (OT) systems and limit cross-access to devices and data to mitigate the consequences of a cyberattack.

Large-scale sporting events can come together quickly, with new partners and vendors acquiring access to enterprise and shared networks for a specific period.

“The pop-up nature of connectivity with some events can make it hard to develop visibility and control of devices and data flows," says Erasmus. "It also fosters a false sense of security that 'temporary' connections are lower risk. Sports organisations, sponsors, hosts, and venues must collaborate on these systems and develop cyber smart fan experiences. Cyber security threats require constant vigilance and collaboration among stakeholders to prevent and mitigate escalation.”

Sports associations, teams, and venues should implement a comprehensive and multi-layered security framework to safeguard against cyber security threats, says Erasmus. This includes deploying firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and strong encryption protocols to fortify the network against unauthorised access and data breaches. Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments should be conducted, as well as user awareness and training programmes.

He advises organisers to partner with reputable cyber security firms to continuously monitor network traffic, detect potential threats in real time, and respond swiftly to any security incidents.