US COVID-19 Research Targeted by Foreign Hackers: FBI Official

April 17, 2020 Updated: April 23, 2020

A senior FBI official has said that U.S. research institutes working on COVID-19 are susceptible to espionage by other nation states, and that some have already been infiltrated.

“We have certainly seen a reconnaissance activity, some intrusions into some of those institutions, especially those that have publicly identified themselves as working on COVID related research,” said FBI Deputy Assistant Director for the Cyber Division Tonya Ugoretz in an April 16 webinar, “Combatting Cybercrime During COVID-19,” by the Aspen Institute.

Ugoretz didn’t specify which country she was talking about but said these countries want to know how the other nations are responding to the pandemic and gather more information, particularly on things like vaccine research.

The official said the American institutes make their ongoing research efforts known for various good reasons, like educating the public, but this also makes them an easy target for other nations and hackers.

“The sad flip side is that it kind of makes a mark for other nation states that are interested in gleaning details about what exactly they are doing and may be even stealing proprietary information that those institutions have,” said Ugoretz, adding that while this is not a new phenomenon, it has heightened since the outbreak of the CCP virus pandemic.

This month Iran-backed hackers tried to break into the network of World Health Organization (WHO) staffers amid the pandemic to steal information, according to the Centre for Strategic and International studies (CSIS), which recently released a report on Significant Cyber Incidents on government agencies, defense, and high tech companies.

Cybercrime During COVID-19

Ugoretz also mentioned that the general rate of cybercrime has tripled during the pandemic, with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complain Center currently receiving 3,000-4,000 complaints everyday, up from around 1,000 earlier.

“There was this brief shining moment when we hoped that, gosh, cybercriminals are human beings, too, and maybe they would think that targeting or taking advantage of this pandemic for personal profit might be beyond the pale,” said Ugoretz. “Sadly, that has not been the case.”

She said the cyber criminals are taking advantage of the lack of security, as people around the world shift their work online during the pandemic, and are using this situation to break into corporate networks.

Another speaker at the Aspen Institute’s webinar, Marc Rogers, talked about the efforts of the Cyber Threat Intelligence League, a group of about 1,400 cybersecurity experts from 76 countries who were assembled in just three weeks during the pandemic to work against the threats of cybercrime.

The league, since its recent inception, has taken down 2,833 malicious websites, collected and analyzed over 2,500 distinct phishing messages, and detected over 2,000 cybersecurity vulnerabilities in high-risk organizations.

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