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Report: FBI, DHS find China is trying to hack, steal US coronavirus vaccine research

A computer with code on the screen. (Pixabay/Released)
May 11, 2020

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have identified Chinese efforts to steal U.S. research data on the development of coronavirus vaccines. The U.S. agencies are preparing to publish a report of their findings in the coming days, according to The New York Times.

A draft of the pending FBI and DHS report, which was obtained by The Times, says China is seeking “valuable intellectual property and public health data through illicit means related to vaccines, treatments and testing.” The assessment finds not only efforts to steal information through cyberattacks, but also through the use of “nontraditional actors,” including Chinese foreign researchers and students in the U.S. stealing physical information relating to vaccine research.

More than a dozen other nations, including U.S. allies like South Korea, have reportedly engaged in efforts to steal vaccine research information from other countries, according to private security firms that spoke with The Times.

U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recently published a joint report with the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in which it assessed advanced persistent threat (APT) groups — those typically associated with state-sponsored hacking efforts — seeking to breach U.S. pharmaceutical companies and research institutes “for commercial and state benefit.” The CISA report did not name any specific countries.

The decision by the FBI and DHS to specifically name Chinese state-run hacking teams, however, may be intended to involve a broader deterrence effort involving United States Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Under authorities granted to them by President Donald Trump, CYBERCOM and the NSA could launch cyber counterattacks in response to hacking efforts by China and other countries. The Times previously reported a U.S. cyber operation in response to apparent Russian efforts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections.

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The new FBI and DHS assessment would also follow past assessments that China has been involved in a disinformation campaign against the U.S. throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. State Department has determined that China, Russia, and Iran have been involved in shared offensive and defensive disinformation narratives. The defensive narratives appear aimed at avoiding discussion of the coronavirus pandemic’s origin in Wuhan, China, and claim that China did an effective job countering the virus.

The offensive narrative, in turn, suggests the virus was actually started by the U.S. or that it worsened under the U.S. response. Various efforts in this offensive effort have been observed in recent weeks. In March, a Chinese government official promoted claims that the U.S. Army first brought the virus to China. In another apparent example of disinformation, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected U.S. offers to provide medical aid in response to the coronavirus pandemic and suggested the U.S. specifically engineered the virus to target Iranian DNA.

The report alleging efforts to hack and steal coronavirus vaccine research also comes after President Donald Trump announced ”Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate the vaccine development process.

China has claimed the problems from coronavirus have largely passed, though some have speculated the country’s death toll may be far higher than it is reporting, with cases still ongoing. Persistent efforts to steal virus and vaccine research from other countries may also be indicative of China’s continued concern over the pandemic.