An American company that is working on a coronavirus vaccine was targeted by hackers linked to the Chinese government, according to a new report.
Reuters, quoting a U.S. security official it did not name, said the biotech company Moderna was targeted in a bid to steal data.
In its reporting, Reuters linked Moderna to a July 7 indictment released by the Department of Justice that said Chinese hackers “conducted reconnaissance” against the computer network of a biotech firm in Massachusetts known to be working on a novel coronavirus vaccine in January.
The indictment said the hackers were contractors for China’s Ministry of State Security.
China has denied it hacked the company.
The indictment did not name the company; however, Moderna is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and announced its COVID-19 vaccine candidate in January.
According to Reuters, “Reconnaissance activities can include a range of actions, including probing public websites for vulnerabilities to scouting out important accounts after entering a network, cybersecurity experts say.”
Moderna told Reuters it was in contact with the FBI and was made aware of the activities of the hackers cited in the indictment.
“Moderna remains highly vigilant to potential cybersecurity threats, maintaining an internal team, external support services and good working relationships with outside authorities to continuously assess threats and protect our valuable information,” company spokesman Ray Jordan told Reuters, declining to provide further details.
According to a Justice Department news release issued last week, John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for National Security, said “China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that now provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist Party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including COVID-19 research.”
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said, “Today’s indictment demonstrates the serious consequences the Chinese MSS and its proxies will face if they continue to deploy malicious cyber tactics to either steal what they cannot create or silence what they do not want to hear. Cybercrimes directed by the Chinese government’s intelligence services not only threaten the United States but also every other country that supports fair play, international norms, and the rule of law, and it also seriously undermines China’s desire to become a respected leader in world affairs. The FBI and our international partners will not stand idly by to this threat, and we are committed to holding the Chinese government accountable.”
“The hackers operated from China both for their own gain and with the assistance and for the benefit of the Chinese government’s Ministry of State Security,” said William D. Hyslop, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.
One commentator said the report should be no surprise.
“The targeting of pharmaceutical research is not something new for state-sponsored hackers, and I’m afraid cases like this are considered fair game for cyber-spies,” Stefan Tanase, an intelligence expert at CSIS Security Group, said, according to Newsweek. “What we’re witnessing right now is a direct result of the current global situation, where there’s an ongoing race to discover an efficient vaccine against COVID-19,” he said.
Tanase said that as vaccines move through multi-phase drug trials, hackers will pick up their pace as well.
“This race has led multiple state-sponsored hacking groups to ramp up their operations targeting the pharmaceutical industry,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised these attacks are happening. What would be surprising is if they stopped.”
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