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Daniel Tobok from Toronto-based IT security firm Digital Wyzdom, seen here April 5, 2011, says hackers seeking inside information on BHP Billiton's abortive takeover of Potash Corp. hacked the computer systems of major Bay Street law firms, financial institutions and public-relations agencies last year.JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail

Hackers linked to computers in China engaged in cyber attacks on major Bay Street law firms, financial institutions and public-relations agencies in an apparent effort to seek inside information on last year's abortive takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, a security consultant says.

At least seven law firms were targeted in attacks that Daniel Tobok, president of Toronto-based Digital Wyzdom Inc., believes are also linked to hacking that paralyzed federal government computer systems last year.

Most of these attacks were decoys, he said, meant to distract anyone tracing the activity from what he believes was the hackers' real goal: Getting information about BHP Billiton Ltd. 's ultimately unsuccessful $38-billion bid for Potash Corp. in 2010.

Mr. Tobok could not say for sure that the attacks, which he described as sophisticated, and which appeared to originate from Chinese computers, were in fact sanctioned by China's government. Sinochem Group, China's state-owned chemicals and fertilizer group, is thought to have considered its own bid for Potash Corp., out of fear that BHP would control the global supply for potash.

And Mr. Tobok, whose organization has former RCMP and Toronto Police officers on its staff, also could not say for sure whether any sensitive information actually ended up in the hands of hackers. But he suggested it might have.

"They did go in, they did search for certain information, and one can assume that whatever they saw, it's in their possession," said Mr. Tobok, who did not name any specific law firms or other institutions.

He also said he could not confirm with certainty that the attacks were aimed at securing information about Potash Corp. But he says a series of institutions linked to the deal appeared to face a series of strikingly similar attacks. He was retained by at least one of the seven law firms he says were breached.

None of the Canadian organizations associated with the abortive Potash deal acknowledged being a victim of a cyber attack that compromised any client information, including Potash Corp.'s financial adviser, Royal Bank of Canada , and its main Canadian law firm on the deal, Stikeman Elliott LLP.

Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, which acted for BHP, said it was "not aware of any compromise of client information as a result of any attempt to breach our systems."

CIBC, which advised BHP, also said it was unaware of any breach.

A spokeswoman for Hill & Knowlton Canada, which advised BHP, declined to comment. John Capobianco of Fleishman Hillard Canada, who handled the public relations file for Potash Corp., said as far as he knew, his firm wasn't hacked. But those working on the case were careful about what they put in e-mails, he said, as a general precaution.

Scott Jolliffe, chairman and chief executive officer of law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP – which acted for the government of Saskatchewan – said his firm was unaware of any cyber-security breach.

Huge corporations, the Pentagon, and U.S. and British law firms are among those to have suffered data breaches in recent years, some reportedly linked to computers in China.

Security expert Alan Brill, senior managing director of cyber-security at New York-based Kroll Inc., a risk consulting company, said even sophisticated organizations can fail to realize they have been victimized by hackers: "They are in there, and you may not even notice it, because you are not ."

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