Russian cyber-hackers target organizations involved in the development of coronavirus vaccines, security officials in the U.S., UK and Canada said Thursday.
The UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) released an opinion on the activities of the threat group known as APT29, which has “exploited organizations worldwide”.
The NCSC assessed that APT29, also known as “the dukes” or “cozy bear”, is almost certainly part of the Russian secret services. The assessment is supported by partners from the Canadian Communication Security Establishment (CSE), the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Security Agency (NSA).
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“It is completely unacceptable for Russian intelligence agencies to take action against those working to fight the coronavirus pandemic,”
The NCSC announced this in a press release, claiming “APT29’s campaign for malicious activity continues, particularly against government, diplomatic, think tank, health, and energy goals to steal valuable intellectual property . ”
“We condemn these despicable attacks against those who are doing important work to fight the coronavirus pandemic,” said NCSC Operations Manager Paul Chichester, in a statement. “Working with our allies, the NCSC is committed to protecting our most important assets. Our top priority right now is to protect the healthcare sector.”
Chichester also urged “organizations to familiarize themselves with the advice we provide to help defend their networks.”
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The NCSC said they are more than 95 percent certain that APT29 is part of Russian intelligence. It was also assessed that it was very likely – between 80 and 90 percent – that this activity gathered information about COVID-19 vaccine research or research into the COVID-19 virus itself.
The ongoing and ongoing attacks are seen by intelligence officials as an attempt to steal intellectual property instead of disrupting research. It was unclear whether information was actually stolen, but the UK center says that the confidential information is not considered compromised by anyone.
Cozy Bear, also known as “The Dukes”, was identified by Washington as one of two hacking groups associated with the Russian government that broke into the Democratic National Committee’s computer network and stole emails before the 2016 presidential election. The other group is usually called Fancy Bear.
The NCSC previously warned that APT groups (Advanced Persistent Threats) target organizations that are involved in both national and international COVID-19 responses. APT29’s well-known targets include British, American and Canadian research and development organizations for vaccines. Officials claim that the group uses a variety of tools and techniques, including spear phishing and custom malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail”.
The statement did not state whether Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the hacking of vaccine research, but British officials believe that such information would be highly valued.
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The US authorities have made similar allegations against China for months. FBI director Chris Wray said last week, “Right now, China is working to endanger American health organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions that do significant COVID-19 research.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.