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US investigating whether foreign gov’t behind HHS cyber attack; vows to retaliate

Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Deputy Director Bowdich at press conference announcing charges against 4 Chinese military hackers on Feb. 10, 2020. (U.S. Department of Justice/Released)
March 20, 2020

The United States will swiftly and severely retaliate against the enemy behind a recent cyber attack on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as against any foreign government that might be behind a disinformation campaign aimed at spreading coronavirus fears in the country, Attorney General William Barr vowed.

Speaking to the Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday, Barr said there was a denial of service (DoS) attack on DHS networks on Monday. A DoS attack, according to the Department of Homeland Security, is when an attacker floods a network server with so much traffic that legitimate users cannot gain access to, in this case, the HHS website.

The servers are operating normally now and HHS Secretary Alex Azar said its networks were not penetrated, although officials didn’t detail the scope of the attack. A disinformation campaign has also begun to spread online that says the United States is responsible for the virus’ spread, not China, where the first case of the virus was detected.

“Our primary role right now is to investigate,” Barr said. “The FBI is very active, trying to determine who is responsible for these things.”

The attack came after U.S. officials said on Sunday that an unnamed foreign entity was deliberately attempting to sow fears of a nationwide quarantine amid the coronavirus outbreak. Agencies are working to continue to deny those attempts.

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As fears of the coronavirus rise, notably over the possibility that it could last until August and cause a recession, the Trump administration has announced several plans to combat the deadly virus as well as help those affected in other ways by the virus, notably, by stimulating the economy, possibly with a temporary universal basic income handout of $1,000 to each citizen, similar to what the government did after 9/11.

Additionally, President Donald Trump announced there will be a drastic increase in the number of coronavirus testing kits, reportedly 5 million, will be available at the end of the month. One of the most pressing problems for containing the spread of the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is the limited number of testing kits available right now. The two-week timeframe it takes to notice signs of the deadly virus as been a primary cause of its spread.

“When you’re dealing with something like a denial of service attack on HHS during a pandemic, that’s a very grave action for another country to take,” Barr said. “So, if it is another country doing this, I’m sure the ramifications will be severe.”

According to John Hopkins’ latest tracking data, there are 214,894 cases of coronavirus around the world, more than 8,000 deaths, and more than 83,000 people have recovered from the virus. There are more than 7,700 cases in the United States and at least 118 deaths from the coronavirus, although the number of infected is suspected to be much greater due to the lack of available test kits.

The first COVID-19 vaccine, called mRNA-1273, began testing on Monday in Seattle at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, with the National Institute of Health funding the trial.