The Trump administration is considering to issue a warning that hackers tied to the Chinese government are attempting to steal information from researchers who are working to develop a coronavirus vaccine, US administration officials told The Washington Post on Monday.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and cybersecurity experts believe that the threat is coming from “non-traditional actors” such as Chinese students and researchers in the United States, said one official, who spoke on the conditions of anonymity.
“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data,” a draft of the warning says, according to the official quoted by The Washington Post.
There is no indication that any attempt thus far has been successful, said a second official.
The expected warning should be out within a week or so, the official added further.
Asked about the warning, which was first reported by the New York Times, Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said, “We firmly oppose and fight all kinds of cyber-attacks conducted by hackers. We are leading the world in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research. It is immoral to target China with rumors and slanders in the absence of any evidence.”
The newspapers stated that the planned alert would probably exacerbate the already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And it coincides with heightened efforts by the Trump administration to draw attention to China”s long-running campaign to steal American secrets and intellectual property — including biomedical research — to gain advantage in the global economy.
President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have suggested that the virus originated or leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, though the government has produced no evidence to back that assertion.
But the laboratory in Wuhan has regularly denied claims of being the probable source of the virus.
Moreover, Beijing, on its part, has falsely suggested that the US Army may have “brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” seeking to fuel a coronavirus conspiracy theory.
The expected alert also will come as private security researchers say they have seen commercial and government organisations developing treatments for COVID-19 being targeted by government-linked hackers in China, Iran, and Russia, the Post reported.
“Intense intelligence collection on COVID-19 may have begun as early as January,” John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, told the newspaper.
“We believe Vietnamese actors started targeting the Chinese government for this information around then,” he added.
Hulquist noted the pandemic is “an existential threat” to governments around the world. So, he said, “we expect intelligence services to aggressively collect information from organisations involved in the response, regardless of their commercial ties.”
The joint advisory also will urge victims to contact the FBI and will provide DHS-recommended resources for protecting data.