Foreign state-backed hackers targeting U.S. COVID-19 research: FBI

According to a senior cybersecurity official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, foreign government hackers have managed to break into companies which are conducting research into treatments for COVID-19 – the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

During an online panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Tonya Ugoretz disclosed to participants that the bureau had recently seen state-backed hackers conducting reconnaissance 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,” said Ugoretz.

Although it made sense for institutions working on promising treatments or a potential COVID-19 vaccine to tout their work publicly, however “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.”

Ugoretz did not name specific countries or identify the organizations that were targeted.

“Medical research organizations 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 COVID19 pandemic,” said Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

“Now is the time to protect the critical research you’re conducting.”

The FBI declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had no immediate comment.

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