US accuses China of trying to hack coronavirus vaccine research


The joint warning claims that Chinese hackers are looking to steal data surrounding a vaccine for COVID-19. 

Angela Lang/CNET

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The Trump administration is calling out the Chinese government over alleged attempts to hack and steal information for developing a coronavirus vaccine.  

The Justice Department and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced on Wednesday that state-sponsored Chinese hackers are targeting US researchers in cyberattacks seeking information on vaccines for COVID-19. The hackers are also looking to steal data related to testing for the coronavirus outbreak, as well as treatments. 

“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research,” the joint warning said. 

The agencies said it would be releasing more technical details about the hacking attempts “in the coming days.” 

The warning recommended that researchers patch all their systems for critical vulnerabilities, and require multi-factor authentication for accounts. Companies at risk should also know that more press attention will mean a higher chance of hacking attempts, the warnings said. 

Cyberattacks have been on the uprise because of COVID-19, with cybercriminals taking advantage of people’s fears about the pandemic. The FBI said it’s received more than 3,600 complaints related to the coronavirus in April, and scams surrounding the disease have stolen more than $12 million from Americans. 

Government-backed hackers are using cyberattacks to steal information from other countries, security researchers have found. Cybersecurity firm FireEye said it’s found that state-sponsored hackers from Vietnam had been targeting the Chinese government for information on how it’s been handling the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Reuters also reported that hackers linked to Iran had been targeting attacks against Gilead Sciences, the company behind the coronavirus drug Remdesvir. 

In April, the World Health Organization said it’s seen a fivefold increase in cyberattacks, while on May 5 the US’s Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre issued a joint warning that government-backed hackers were targeting healthcare organizations. 

The targets included pharmaceutical companies and researchers linked to COVID-19 responses, the government officials said. 

The warning did not specifically single out China, though the US government has openly called out the nation’s hackers for other cyberattacks, including the Equifax breach and “massive theft” from NASA.  

The Justice Department has cited that more than 90 percent of its economic espionage cases involve China, including in medical research. The coronavirus pandemic is leading to more espionage cases, as countries are looking to hack their way to a cure for the disease. 

Researchers have noted that a coronavirus vaccine is key to economic recovery from the pandemic, and that without it, models predict hundreds of thousands of deaths from the disease. 

Countries are seeking an advantage in developing vaccines and responses to the coronavirus outbreak, and are turning to their hackers to get information that other nations might not be sharing. 

Google said it’s found more than a dozen hacking groups backed by governments launching coronavirus-related cyberattacks. 

“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19,” CISA and the FBI said. “This announcement is intended to raise awareness for research institutions and the American public and provide resources and guidance for those who may be targeted.”

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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