U.S., UK, CANADA: RUS­SIA HACK­ING VAC­CINE TRI­ALS

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION / WORLD / BSUINESS - BY ERIC TUCKER, JILL LAW­LESS AND DAN­ICA KIRKA

WASH­ING­TON — Western gov­ern­ments ac­cused hack­ers be­lieved to be part of Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of try­ing to steal valu­able pri­vate in­for­ma­tion about a coro­n­avirus vac­cine Thurs­day, call­ing out the Krem­lin in an un­usu­ally de­tailed public warn­ing to sci­en­tists and med­i­cal com­pa­nies.

The al­leged cul­prit is a fa­mil­iar foe. In­tel­li­gence agen­cies in the United States, United King­dom and Canada al­leged the hack­ing group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear and blamed for Amer­i­can elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence four years ago, is at­tack­ing aca­demic and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal re­search in­sti­tu­tions in­volved in COVID-19 vac­cine de­vel­op­ment.

It was un­clear whether any use­ful in­for­ma­tion was stolen. But Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Do­minic Raab said, “It is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able that the Rus­sian In­tel­li­gence Ser­vices are tar­get­ing those work­ing to com­bat the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.”

He ac­cused Moscow of pur­su­ing “self­ish in­ter­ests with reck­less be­hav­ior.”

Stick­ing to more gen­eral lan­guage, White House press sec­re­tary Kayleigh McE­nany said, “We worked very closely with our al­lies to en­sure that we would take mea­sures to keep that in­for­ma­tion safe, and we con­tinue do so.”

The al­le­ga­tion that hack­ers linked to a for­eign gov­ern­ment are at­tempt­ing to siphon se­cret med­i­cal re­search dur­ing the pan­demic is not en­tirely new. U.S. of­fi­cials as re­cently as Thurs­day have ac­cused China of vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal con­duct. But the lat­est public warn­ing was star­tling for the de­tail it pro­vided, at­tribut­ing the tar­get­ing by name to a par­tic­u­lar hack­ing group and spec­i­fy­ing the soft­ware vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties the hack­ers have been ex­ploit­ing.

Also, Rus­sian cy­ber­at­tacks strike a par­tic­u­lar nerve in the U.S., given the Krem­lin’s so­phis­ti­cated cam­paign to in­flu­ence the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

The co­or­di­na­tion of the new warn­ing across con­ti­nents seemed de­signed to add heft and grav­ity to the an­nounce­ment and to prompt the Western tar­gets of the hack­ers to pro­tect them­selves.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, re­jected the ac­cu­sa­tions, say­ing: “We don’t have in­for­ma­tion about who may have hacked phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies and re­search cen­ters in Bri­tain.”

The U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity’s cy­ber­se­cu­rity agency warned in April that cy­ber­crim­i­nals and other groups were tar­get­ing COVID-19 re­search, not­ing at the time that the in­crease in peo­ple tele­work­ing be­cause of the pan­demic had cre­ated po­ten­tial av­enues for hack­ers to ex­ploit.

The per­sis­tent at­tacks are seen as an ef­fort to steal in­tel­lec­tual property rather than dis­rupt re­search. In­di­vid­u­als’ con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion is not be­lieved to have been com­pro­mised.

More broadly, Thurs­day’s warn­ing speaks to the vul­ner­a­bil­ity cre­ated by the pan­demic and the global race for a vac­cine.

Profit-mo­ti­vated crim­i­nals have ex­ploited the sit­u­a­tion, and so have for­eign gov­ern­ments “who also have their own ur­gent de­mands for in­for­ma­tion about the pan­demic and about things like vac­cine re­search,” Tonya Ugoretz, an FBI deputy as­sis­tant direc­tor, said at a cy­ber­se­cu­rity con­fer­ence last month.

“Some of them are us­ing their cy­ber ca­pa­bil­i­ties to, for ex­am­ple, at­tempt to break into the net­works of those who are con­duct­ing this re­search, as well as into non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, to sat­isfy their own in­for­ma­tion needs,” Ugoretz said.

A sub­ject re­ceives a shot in March dur­ing a clin­i­cal trial of a po­ten­tial COVID-19 vac­cine by Moderna.

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