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FBI and DHS warn Chinese hackers are targeting US COVID research



The Trump administration plans a warning that, according to a person familiar with the matter, cyber actors associated with the Chinese government are working on receiving US research on coronavirus treatments and vaccines. The warning and its focus were first reported by the New York Times.

The report is expected to be issued jointly by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, although the timing of its release is fluid. Both authorities closely monitored the activities of a number of foreign government hackers during the pandemic and warned that universities, research institutes and health care facilities could be at increased risk.

“We have certainly seen educational activities and some interventions in some of these institutions, particularly those that have publicly identified themselves as COVID-related researchers,”

; said Tonya Ugoretz, FBI deputy director for the cyber department, during an Aspen panel discussion Institutes last month.

“The world’s most valuable intellectual property is undoubtedly COVID vaccines,” Robert Hannigan, former director of GCHQ, the British version of the NSA, told Charlie D’Agata of CBS News about the current threat. “When you talk to people in the healthcare and academic world, you feel under siege right now.”

Hannigan, currently Chairman of BlueVoyant International, and other cyber security experts say hackers are targeting the whole process: everything related to COVID19-related research for vaccines, tests, and treatments. This makes every company involved in the process, including university laboratories, medical facilities, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies – and any connection between these companies – a potential weak link.

Social distancing measures that result in millions of employees working from home – some on PCs with vulnerable software – have exacerbated the threat, experts say.

“It made the playground much bigger,” Hannigan told D’Agata.

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In a rare joint opinion last week, security agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom warned that undisclosed nationwide cyber actors target “health agencies, pharmaceutical companies, universities, medical research organizations and local governments”. The agencies asked employees of these organizations to secure their passwords and implement two-factor authentication to protect themselves from the most common attacks.

Private cyber security companies and U.S. government agencies have found that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have escalated cyber activity and coronavirus disinformation efforts.

US law enforcement and intelligence officials have also previously warned of China’s use of “non-traditional collectors,” including students and researchers, who are required to steal scientific data and proprietary technologies. The country’s top counterintelligence agency, Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said China’s theft of intellectual property in the United States amounts to up to $ 400 billion annually.

A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday that Beijing is leading the race for a COVID-19 vaccine and rejects all forms of cyberattack. “It is immoral for anyone to accept rumors without providing evidence,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

The Trump administration has consistently warned allies and warned Beijing against China’s attempted espionage even before the coronavirus pandemic brought US-China relations to a new low. At the end of last year, the Justice Department issued a number of Chinese-related charges accusing telecommunications giant Huawei and two subsidiaries of stealing business secrets and indicting members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for hacking the Equifax credit bureau in 2017. In January, she accused a professor at Harvard University of having lied to the authorities about his financial ties to the Chinese Thousand Talents Plan, a recruitment platform designed to attract high-level scientific talent to China.

While President Trump has occasionally praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the early stages of the outbreak, Mr. Trump and a number of senior US government officials have increasingly accused Beijing of hiding the virus’s origins and withholding information about it. Both Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have commended unspecified consequences for China.

They also said publicly that significant evidence linked the virus outbreak to a research laboratory in Wuhan. While U.S. intelligence agencies have acknowledged that they are dealing with this scenario as well as the theory generally accepted by scientific experts that the transfer took place elsewhere in nature, the authorities have not said that both scenarios relate to this More or less timing probably occurred than the other.

At a press conference on Monday, President Trump dealt with China’s targeted cyber activities.

“What’s new in China? I’m not happy with China, it should have stopped at the source, should have done it,” said Trump. “Now you’re telling me they’re hacking. What’s new? We’re watching very closely.”


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