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FBI and DHS accuse Chinese hackers of targeting US COVID-19 research

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 19: Clinical support technician Douglas Condie extracts viruses from swab samples so that the genetic structure of a virus can be analysed and identified in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, on February 19, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Published 13 May 2020

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Image Credits: Jane Barlow / WPA Pool (opens in a new window)/ Getty ImagesGLASGOW, SCOTLAND – FEBRUARY 19: Clinical support technician Douglas Condie extracts viruses from swab samples so that the genetic structure of a virus can be analysed and identified in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, on February 19, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jane Barlow – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In a rare joint public statement, the FBI and Homeland Security’s cybersecurity advisory unit CISA  have accused top Chinese hackers of trying to steal U.S. research related to the coronavirus strain, known as COVID-19.

The statement, published today, said that Chinese hackers “have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing from networks and personnel associated with COVID-19-related research,” it reads.

“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19,” it reads. Neither the FBI nor CISA provided evidence for their claims, but said they would release technical details “in the coming days.”

The joint statement follows a similar announcement between U.S. and U.K. authorities last week, which warned that hackers are using password spraying — a common attack that uses recycled or default passwords to break into systems — against healthcare bodies and medical research organizations “that provide medical support services and supplies in a concerted effort to prevent incidents and enable them to focus on their response to COVID-19.”

Research firms and pharmaceutical giants have scrambled to find a vaccine for the COVID-19 strain, which experts have said is likely the only way that strict lockdown restrictions can be lifted across the world.

To date, there have been more than 4.2 million confirmed cases since it was first discovered in December.

U.S. authorities have long accused China of hacking into U.S. systems. Since 2018, Justice Department prosecutors have brought charges against several hackers, said to be working for the Chinese government, for the 2015 Anthem breach, dozens of technology giants and governmental organizations and, more recently, Chinese military hackers who stole close to 150 million records from credit giant Equifax.

Beijing has repeatedly denied accusations of hacking.

But China isn’t the only government accused of using its offensive cyber prowess to steal coronavirus research. Earlier this week, Reuters reported that Iran-backed hackers targeted U.S. drug maker Gilead, whose antiviral drug remdesivir is the only treatment that has so far shown to help patients suffering from COVID-19.

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