ThyssenKrupp plant
ThyssenKrupp plant [Source: ThyssenKrupp]

ThyssenKrupp, one of the world's largest multinationals and one of the leading steel producers, said today in a statement that it was the victim of an economical espionage campaign carried out by hackers based in Southeast Asia.

The company said the hackers' goals were to breach its network and steal technological know-how and research from its industrial research branches.

A ThyssenKrupp spokesperson told German media that they detected the intrusion in April, and tracked it down to February this year.

Company replaced all hacked IT systems

ThyssenKrupp, who's made up of 670 different companies, runs its own computer emergency response team (CERT). The ThyssenKrupp CERT investigators didn't shut out the hackers once the cyber-attack was discovered but kept them under surveillance while they slowly "revised" all the breached IT systems.

This is how the ThyssenKrupp team tracked down the attackers to a country in Southeast Asia. The CERT team also informed local German authorities, which have now started an investigation.

ThyssenKrupp says the hackers were only interested in stealing technical trade secrets, and that they didn't try to sabotage any of its industrial systems, such as its steel mills located or marine shipyards where the company builds submarines and warships.

Extent of the hack still unknown

The company didn't detail which of its business units and subsidiaries have been attacked.

"At present there is no reliable estimation as to the damage (e.g. loss of intellectual property) caused by the attack," the company said in its statement. "Content of this loss of data is not clear yet, with the exception of certain project data in an operative engineering company."

"The incident is not attributable to security deficiencies at ThyssenKrupp," the company also added, describing the attack and the hackers as "professional professional."

Steel manufacturers have been targeted in the past

Cyber-attacks are a major problem in the steel production business. In April this year, three US steelmakers asked the US government to ban steel imports from China because they suspected Chinese steel companies benefited from intellectual property stolen from US steel makers. Chinese authorities called the allegations "groundless."

Nevertheless, an attorney for U.S. Steel said the hackers stole decades of research needed to create next generation of high-strength steel, which Chinese manufacturers started mass-producing after the hack.