US government accuses Chinese ‘cyber actors’ of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research

The FBI alongside the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) have formally accused China of funding and operating hacking cells dedicated to stealing coronavirus vaccine research from the US and its allies.

The news was issued as an unclassified public service announcement on CISA’s website on Wednesday. News reports over the weekend first said the warning, which is directed at organizations working on vaccine research, was imminent as numerous countries have redirected intelligence efforts toward other nations’ responses to and research on COVID-19.

“The FBI is investigating the targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by PRC-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors,” the PSA reads. “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 potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.”

The US is not alone here, nor is China the only country attempting to use cyberattacks to spy and gather intelligence on other countries’ coronavirus treatment efforts and to capitalize on the current pandemic. Israel has accused Iran of attempting to cripple its water supply amid shelter-in-place orders. Earlier this month. the US and the UK issued a joint warning about the targeting of health care organizations and pharmaceutical and medical research companies. The warning didn’t name specific countries, but it insinuated that hacking threats may come from known bad actors, or “advanced persistent threat groups” as the warning words it, like China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

The US State Department and the Trump administration are also engaged in a high-level back-and-forth with the Chinese government over assigning blame for the coronavirus pandemic and demands for global compensation, which itself stems in part from Trump’s adversarial relationship with the country throughout his presidency over trade secret theft and the outsourcing of American jobs and manufacturing. The US is now accusing China of spreading misinformation about the source of the virus and downplaying the severity and death toll of its ongoing outbreak to better position itself in the aftermath.

The PSA says that vaccine research organizations should be well aware that any press attention on its efforts may lead to heightened security risks, as it could tip off Chinese hackers and lead to potential cyberattacks. CISA and the FBI ask that such organizations patch all systems for vulnerabilities, actively scan all web applications for unauthorized access, improve security with protections like multistep authentication, and identify and suspend access to any suspicious accounts.

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