State-sponsored hackers ‘trying to steal’ coronavirus vaccine research

China, Russia and Iran accused of targeting UK and US labs

Vaccine research
(Image credit: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images)

Britain and the US have issued a warning that rival countries are mounting cyberattacks on research institutions working on a coronavirus vaccine.

The Times reports that the joint advisory statement about attempts to “steal secrets” follow similar warnings from US intelligence officials of “state-backed hackers targeting vaccine laboratories on behalf of governments including China, Russia and Iran”.

Medical research firms, universities and local government organisations are among those being attacked in what Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has described as “predatory criminal behaviour”, Sky News says.

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The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have “urged workers in healthcare and medical research to change easy-to-guess passwords” in order to defend against so-called “password spraying” campaigns, the broadcaster reports.

Password spraying sees hackers hit targets with multiple common passwords in the hope that one will work.

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According to BBC security correspondent Gorden Corera, that UK authorities have offered specialist advice on fending off cyberattacks to Oxford University and Imperial College London, both of which have played leading roles in the country’s coronavirus response.

The rise in “aggressive operations” has shown that other “organisations that might not have considered themselves to be top targets for hackers from foreign states are now in their sights”, he adds.

The Times says there is no evidence that hackers have managed to steal British or American research as yet, but Sky News “understands attacks have had success elsewhere”.

The World Health Organization has been forced to heighten its cyberdefences over the past two months, after “coming under sustained hacking attempts”, reports The Times.

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