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Middle East connection in £20m Sun server thefts?

Embargo-busting theory

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Stories that Sun Microsystems kit is being stolen to order by gangs supplying Middle Eastern dictators have resurfaced in the UK press.

Yesterday's Sunday Times carried a front page story reporting that £20m of equipment stolen during break-ins to British firms is being earmarked for the supply of countries covered by hi-tech embargoes.

In February, this year Edinburghnews.com reported that police in Scotland had linked a string of thefts of equipment valued at £1 million to a gang stealing Sun motherboards and UltraSPARC processors for "clients" in the Middle East, including Iraq.

The Sunday Times has egged this further with the suggestion that British robbers are supplying embargoed countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria with hi-tech equipment they would otherwise not be able to buy.

The implication from the report is that a shadowy Middle Eastern "Mr Big" is co-ordinating the supply of microchip technology to be used, at least in part, in the hi-tech weapons programmes of rogue states.

Several universities (including Edinburgh, Manchester and Aberdeen), banks (including Deutsche Bank in London) and publishing houses (including Express Newspapers and the Birmingham Post) have been hit by Sun server thieves over the last 18 months.

News International, the publisher of the Sunday Times is also said to be a victim of the Sun robbers, according to newspaper industry sources, although it declines to comment, and no mention of a break-in taking place at NI premises is made in the Sunday Times article.

A spokesman for the City of London police said inquiries in the case of the £1.7m Deutsche Bank raid had led to the conviction of two men who had sold stolen kit overseas.

Gangs sold equipment abroad because it was less traceable and in the case of the Deutsche Bank thieves they used middlemen in Germany, Holland and the US.

"The end customers for equipment isn't clear but there's nothing to support a Middle East connection from our enquiry," he said.

The police describe the Sunday Times reports as supposition, which isn't to say they aren't true.

But we have our doubts. Who needs criminal masterminds and Saddam Hussain to steal and smuggle Sun kit?

The UK has a longstanding tradition of armed robbery and burglary to obtain computer components. In the early 90s, Apple Macs were the favoured target; in the mid-late 90s, soaring DRAM prices, resulted in memory vendors getting robbed almost weekly. Now villains are turning their attention to high-value Sun products.

Certainly there is a thriving black market for stolen Sun hardware, which the easier availability of secondhand kit from failed firms has done little to stem.

Peter Deane, divisional director of Sun reseller and distributor Horizon Group, said Sun kit "was strongly targeted by criminals" even while there is more secondhand kit in the marketplace.

Sun resellers eNet in Bristol, Livingstone Rental and even Sun Microsystems have been hit by thieves and Deane said it made sense to keep the minimum level of stock in inventory.

Police advise users to keep areas where Sun kit is housed secure and to control access to buildings. These rudimentary security measures might deter thieves but were ignored in many of the cases of thefts reported, we were told. ®

External links

University computer thefts hit £1 million (Edinburgh Evening News)
Stolen computers worth £20m 'destined for Iraq'(Sunday Times)

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