THE US CYBERSECURITY and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is warning US universities and researchers at pharmaceutical and healthcare firms of attempts by what it says are Chinese state-affiliated hackers to steal coronavirus research.
According to an alert the agency put out jointly with the FBI today:
These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research. The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.
That last might be a logical stretch. Yet it underlines what would be a potentially significant escalation of US-China tensions, both from the attempt to steal US research while calling for international cooperation in addressing the pandemic and from how Washington could regard a cyber-attack on public health in terms of its national security and thus what would be proportionate retaliation or preemptive strikes.
The published alert is light on operational details and damage caused, but US intelligence officials have been privately briefing that the attacks started in early January and that Iranian actors were doing much the same. Private-sector cybersecurity firms previously identified Gilead Sciences, maker of the antiviral drug remdesivir, a potential Covid-19 treatment, as the target of Iranian hacks.
US intelligence and academic circles take it as a given that Iranian and Chinese and (and Russian) hackers have been targetting US biomedical research since long before the coronavirus outbreak started. But a race is now on for the bragging rights as the first country to produce a vaccine against Covid-19, giving impetus to more intense cyber attacks.
Conspiracy theories about where the Covid-19 pandemic started may divide Americans. However, they will readily believe the allegations of these latest alleged hacks. That will give US President Donald Trump scope to attack China again over its handling of the pandemic. Beijing’s public response to the allegations will likely to be to play a straight bat and repeat its standard line that it opposes all cyber espionage.
Today’s CISA alert also provides some context for Trump’s outburst earlier this week towards a US reporter who asked him why he regarded how the United States was dealing with the pandemic in terms of global competition. He testily replied, ‘that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, okay?’ before prematurely ending the press conference.