Hackers and spies are scrambling to steal information on vaccine programs, sources say

Hackers and spies are scrambling to steal information on vaccine programs, sources say
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
  • State actors and criminal hackers are scrambling to access information about vaccine programs around the world.
  • Countries want to see if their allies or enemies are handling vaccinations well or badly, and weaponize that knowledge.
  • Sources tell Insider this is happening in Israel, China, Russia, and Europe.

Spies, hackers, criminals, and even economic analysts around the world are scrambling to access and steal information on various COVID-19 vaccine programs, with the most concerning activity being the theft of data from vaccine supply chains, European and US intelligence officials told Insider.

"It's a mix of non-state actors - hackers trying to install ransomware on critical supply chains and maybe some of the more sophisticated terror groups probing for weaknesses - and state-backed intelligence services gobbling up all the information that can be found," said an intelligence official for a NATO member state.

The official requested anonymity due to the extreme sensitivity of the matter, but their identity is known to Insider.

"The state actions are directed very clearly at vaccine supply chain information - some of which is open source, some not - and it's basically everyone spying on each other," the source said.

"There's been a shift since over the summer where state actors were being very aggressive directing at [gathering] vaccine research," they said. "Once it became clear that the vaccine itself would be easy and effective to develop, everyone switched to spying on the manufacturing supply chain and distribution."


This, according to multiple sources interviewed by Insider, has also resulted in an unprecedented battle among European allies to get the best sense of which nations will recover fastest, and which might lag in vaccine distribution - factors that will have massive economic effects over the coming years.

"Allies don't spy on each other unless it's about money, and Europe has a long history of aggressive economic espionage, as does Asia," said a retired US official, who retains security clearance as a contractor. This person's identity is known to Insider.

"The US obviously engages in all sorts of economic-data collection and espionage but there's more limits to, say, conducting an operation to the direct benefit of an American company, than in the rest of the world," the retired official said.

"The Europeans all have desks that specialize in economic espionage amongst their neighbors and everyone will be having a field day trying to figure out who is winning and losing," they continued.

"Don't underestimate the value in being the first to know that Country X has a long-term vaccine problem which will set it back in the Eurozone."


One EU cybersecurity contractor told Insider there had been "record activity" in vaccine-program breaches.

Read more: What's coming next for COVID-19 vaccines? Here's the latest on 11 leading programs.

Hackers and spies are scrambling to steal information on vaccine programs, sources say
Israeli Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets his second dose of the coronavirus vaccine on January 9, 2021.MIRIAM ALSTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In terms of the actual theft of important data, every source interviewed by Insider said that China, Russia, and Israel would have the highest capability-to-ruthlessness ratio in terms of stealing secrets, delaying potential enemies with interference, or outright supply chain sabotage.

"I'm pleased to see we are included in the list of most capable and ruthless intelligence services, it's within some pride I'd say that's fair," according to a former Israeli intelligence official who still works as a government contractor.

"It was no secret that Israel used its intelligence services to quickly procure protective equipment, ventilators, and other treatments during the height of the pandemic last spring," they said. "It was ruthless but the crisis called for it."


Read more: Israel leads the world in COVID-19 vaccinations. Here's how the country has inoculated more than a third of its population.

The Israeli official added that data on vaccines and distribution among Israel's numerous enemies would be an obvious target for his government.

"On a strategic level, the stability of the region is at stake," they said. "On a tactical level, there's no need to steal a vaccine at this stage but perhaps watching your enemies' system might pose some weakness you can use for something else."

Last summer, a top official at the US Department of Justice suggested that China was interested in stealing technology and information on vaccine development.

"It would be surprising if they were not trying to steal the most valuable biomedical research going on right now," John C. Demers told an event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Valuable from a financial point of view and invaluable from a geopolitical point of view."


All the officials Insider spoke to said that both China and Russia are considered to be considering such operations in Europe.

"There's so many attempts at breaches that the ones we really focus on are the sophisticated attacks that appear to have state-style infrastructure backing them," said an EU cybersecurity contractor. "In some cases there's been record activity."