FBI Official Warns Government Hackers Are Targetting Covid-19 Research

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Senior FBI official warns foreign government hackers have compromised healthcare firms conducting research for Coronavirus treatments

A senior cybersecurity official with the FBI has warned that hackers working for foreign governments have compromised companies conducting vital research.

These compromised firms are said to be researching treatments for Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the Coronavirus, Reuters reported.

Last week both the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre warned that state-backed hackers and online criminals are exploiting the Coronavirus pandemic “for their own objectives.”

Treatment hacking

But now Reuters quoted FBI Deputy Assistant Director Tonya Ugoretz as telling participants in an online panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute that the bureau had recently seen state-backed hackers poking around a series of healthcare and research institutions.

“We certainly have seen reconnaissance activity, and some intrusions, into some of those institutions, especially those that have publicly identified themselves as working on Covid-related research,” she reportedly said.

Ugoretz did say it made sense for institutions working on promising treatments or a potential vaccine to tout their work publicly.

However, she reportedly said, “The sad flipside is that it kind of makes them a mark for other nation-states that are interested in gleaning details about what exactly they’re doing and maybe even stealing proprietary information that those institutions have.”

Ugoretz said that state-backed hackers had often targeted biopharmaceutical industry but said “it’s certainly heightened during this crisis.”

It should be noted that Ugoretz did not name specific countries or identify targeted organisations.

“Medical research organisations and those who work for them should be vigilant against threat actors seeking to steal intellectual property or other sensitive data related to America’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center was quoted by Reuters as saying. “Now is the time to protect the critical research you’re conducting.”

Coronavirus exploits

It is no secret that hackers and criminals are seeking to exploit the Coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Europol warned that the Coronavirus pandemic has created a window of opportunity for hackers targeting organisations and critical services via ransomware and denial-of-service attacks.

And last month security researchers at FireEye warned of a “widespread hacking campaign” being carried out by APT41, one of the most effective hacking teams backed by the Chinese government.

But some are fighting back.

In March approximately 400 cyber-security experts from around the world came together in order to battle the scourge of Coronavirus-related hacking.

That group is called the Covid-19 CTI (cyber threat intelligence) League.

It is made up of cyber experts from 40 countries and includes professionals in senior positions at major tech firms including Microsoft and Amazon.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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