As global research is racing against time to develop an effective vaccine to treat COVID-19, US leading security agencies are reportedly about to release a warning that Chinese hackers are gearing up to breach American efforts on the issue, writes The New York Times.
According to a draft of the alert, suggested by current and former security officials as being slated for release in the coming days, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security claim Beijing is seeking to access “valuable intellectual property and public health data through illicit means related to vaccines, treatments and testing”.
The warning will reportedly emphasise China’s heightened cyber activity and use of “nontraditional actors”, with the latter relating to researchers and students set on infiltrating academic and private laboratories, with the search for a vaccine a key target, writes the outlet.
The impending alert specifically highlighting the alleged dangers emanating from China’s “state-run hacking teams”, which according to cited sources, falls in line with a broader strategy involving United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.
“China’s long history of bad behaviour in cyberspace is well documented, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone they are going after the critical organisations involved in the nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was quoted as saying.
The official underscored the intention of the agency to “defend our interests aggressively."
Security experts are cited as having registered a surge of attacks not only by Chinese hackers, as other foreign states similarly seek an edge to obtain a vaccine.
Iranian hackers, writes the outlet, had reportedly attempted to breach Gilead Sciences, the research-based biopharmaceutical company that produces remdesivir, the therapeutic drug approved earlier by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical trials to treat COVID-19.
There has been no confirmation from government officials or the company whether any element of the hacking effort, first reported by Reuters, was successful.
The new reports on cyber theft linked to the coronavirus pandemic come as earlier the United States and Britain issued a joint warning that “health care bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organisations and local governments” were being targeted by foreign states.
The joint advisory mentioned a spate of incidents in which pharmaceutical companies, medical-research organisations, and universities were targeted by spies seeking data pertaining to research on the COVID-19 virus.
US-China Pandemic Rhetoric
Reports of the impending warning come amidst heightened rhetoric by Washington as it has been ramping up its criticism of China for its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, first identified in Wuhan, Hubei in December 2019.
President Donald Trump had earlier stated he had “seen evidence” suggesting the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the same on ABC’s “This Week”:
“Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories… And so, while the intelligence community continues to do its work, they should continue to do that, and verify so that we are certain, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”
US intelligence agencies currently deny any definite conclusion has been reached on the issue of the specific origins of the pandemic.
China has been emphatically rejecting all accusations levelled at it.
“The U.S. government has ignored the facts, diverted public attention and engaged in buck-passing in an attempt to shirk its responsibility for incompetence in the fight against the epidemic,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang.
Coronavirus ‘Cyber Attacks’
The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown protocols introduced in an effort to stop its spread is suggested as having spawned a new class of hacking targets on a global scale.
The outlet reports that in recent weeks, cybersecurity experts suggested a spate of Vietnamese hacking attempts had targeted Chinese government officials connected to the coronavirus-fighting efforts.
South Korean hackers were claimed to have targeted the World Health Organisation and officials in North Korea, Japan and the United States, as part of efforts to gather intelligence on the virus, according to two security experts working for private firms cited by The New York Times.
On 9 May the Israeli "high-level security cabinet" reportedly focused on an "Iranian cyber attack" on Tel Aviv's civil water infrastructure, according to the Times of Israel.
The Israeli government has offered no evidence to back its claim.
The attempted attack was suggested as having taken place in late April and was first reported by Fox News, after the Water Authority and the Israel National Cyber Directorate announced an "attempted cyber breach on water command and control systems".
Officials noted it did little damage, despite minor problems reported in local councils.
Tehran has denied responsibility for the attack.
The outlet writes that the pandemic has unleashed a “free-for-all” across cyberspace.
“This is a global pandemic, but unfortunately countries are not treating it as a global problem… Everyone is conducting widespread intelligence gathering — on pharmaceutical research, PPE orders, response — to see who is making progress,” Justin Fier, a former national security intelligence analyst, currently director of cyberintelligence at Darktrace, a cybersecurity firm, was quoted as saying, adding that the frequency of the attacks was “astronomical, off the charts".