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Microsoft to protect World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen from Russian hackers

News Analysis
Nov 06, 20163 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Magnus Carlsen is about to defend his title against a Russian grandmaster; he's worried the Russians will try to hack him and turned to Microsoft for protection

If you were the World Chess Champion and you were about to defend your title in a 12-round match against a Russian grandmaster, should you be worried about being hacked? Apparently so, since current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has asked Microsoft to protect him from attacks by Russian hackers.

It’s not like Carlsen, who became a grandmaster at age 13, practices by playing against a computer. In fact, grandmaster and author Andrew Soltis told NPR that “Carlsen won’t even play his computer. He uses it to train, to recommend moves for future competition. But he won’t play it because he just loses all the time, and there’s nothing more depressing than losing without even being in the game.”

But 25-year-old Carlsen of Norway does use his computer for crunching data for analysis and strategies. He’s reportedly worried that he will be targeted by Russian hackers before the World Chess Championship (WCC) because Carlsen will be playing against challenger Sergey Karjakin, who was described as “the fiercely-patriotic darling of Russian president Vladimir Putin.” Therefore, Carlsen asked Microsoft to defend him against nation-state attackers before the event.

A valid threat

Microsoft just issued a warning last week about the Russian-linked APT group Fancy Bear exploiting a zero-day; the same group is believed to be responsible for data breaches at the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Whether it would be Fancy Bear or another Russian group of hackers targeting Carlsen, Microsoft believes the threat is valid enough to protect the World Chess Champion.

“The element of surprise is vitally important in chess,” Vibeke Hansen, the director of communications at Microsoft Norway, told The Telegraph. “Therefore, it is critical that all communication during preparation and the finals is completely secure. Preparing for a World Championship demands a lot of work, analysis and strategic sparring—and a lot of computing power.”

“The last few months before a match are filled with a lot of preparation and hard work,” she added. “It is crucial that no data is lost or compromised.”

Microsoft Norway will ensure that Carlsen “has a safe training environment and secure communication and collaboration tools.”

The World Chess Championship games begin on Nov. 11 and will continue until Nov. 29, or Nov. 30 in the case of a tiebreaker. To win the 12-match event, a player needs six and a half points; winning a match is worth one point, whereas a draw is worth a half point. Carlsen and Karjakin will play inside a glass, soundproof room on the second-floor atrium of the Fulton Market in Manhattan.

Ilya Merenzon, CEO of Agon, the company organizing the 2016 WCC, described Carlsen as “a little bit slow in the beginnings. Sergey will try to beat him in the opening, then hold on for dear life. Expect some fireworks. Both players will try to come up with really cool openings.”

“Openings are the deeply studied first moves in a chess match,” according to Business Insider via the non-ad blocking version on the Stamford Advocate. Merenzon said the 26-year-old challenger “Karjakin has the entire Russian chess machine behind him—and it is a formidable apparatus. The top players in the world are going to [be] working with him. It’s an arms race now, and I know how big the teams are—they’re massive.”

Tickets for the WCC are only $15; Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are expected to be in the audience watching the match.

The winner will have the title of World Chess Champion and a prize fund of up to $1 million.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.