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