A senior cybersecurity official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said foreign government hackers broke into companies conducting research into treatments for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
Deputy Assistant Director Tonya Ugoretz told participants in an online panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute the bureau recently saw state-backed hackers poking around healthcare and research institutions.
“We certainly saw reconnaissance activity and some intrusions, into some institutions, especially those that publicly identified themselves as working on COVID-related research,” she said.
Ugoretz said it made sense for institutions working on promising treatments or a potential vaccine to tout their work publicly. She added, “The sad flipside is it makes them a mark for other nation-states interested in details about what they’re doing and even stealing proprietary information those institutions have.”
Ugoretz said state-backed hackers often targeted the biopharmaceutical industry adding “it’s certainly heightened during this crisis.”
“Medical research organisations and those working for them should be vigilant against threat actors seeking to steal intellectual property or sensitive data related to America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counter-intelligence and Security Centre. “Now is the time to protect critical research you’re conducting.”