US federal agencies warn that Chinese hackers are targeting COVID-19 research on vaccines and treatments

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US federal agencies warn that Chinese hackers are targeting COVID-19 research on vaccines and treatments
A researcher at Protein Sciences reaches for a vial in a lab, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Meriden, Conn.AP Photo/Jessica Hill
  • The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a joint statement Wednesday warning that China-affiliated "cyber actors and non-traditional collectors" are targeting COVID-19 research.
  • "China's efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation's response to COVID-19," the two federal agencies said.
  • China has denied any involvement in the alleged cyber attacks on COVID-19 research organizations.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

US federal agencies warned on Wednesday that Chinese hackers are targeting COVID-19 research operations and attempting to gather information on vaccines and treatments, among other things.

The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said Wednesday that "PRC-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors" 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."

"China's efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation's response to COVID-19," the agencies explained. "The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options."

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Wednesday's public service announcement was issued to raise awareness for healthcare, pharmaceutical, and research operations that might be targeted. The FBI and CISA suggested that at-risk organizations "maintain dedicated cybersecurity and insider threat practices," such as patching critical vulnerabilities, actively scanning for unauthorized access, and strengthening authentication processes.

Last week, US and UK security agencies issued a joint statement alerting organizations involved in responding to the coronavirus to cyber threats to their operations, warning that unnamed actors are targeting "national and international healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, research organizations, and local government with the likely aim of gathering information related to the coronavirus outbreak."

The warning issued Wednesday was more specific, calling attention to suspected Chinese activity in the networks of related organizations.

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The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the alleged cyber attacks on US organizations.

"China is a staunch upholder of cyber security and a victim to cyber attacks. We firmly oppose and fight all kinds of cyber attacks conducted by hackers," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week.

"We are leading the world in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research. It is immoral to target China with rumors and slanders in the absence of any evidence," he added.

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The FBI and CISA said that additional details on the threat posed by cyber criminals will be released in the coming days.

The warning from these two US federal agencies comes at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Beijing, with each side criticizing the other for failures in responding appropriately to the coronavirus.

"What else is new with China? I'm not happy with China, could have stopped it at the source, should have," President Donald Trump said Monday when asked about reports that Chinese hackers were targeting COVID-19 research. "Now you're telling me they're hacking. What else is new? We're watching very closely."

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