A top FBI official has warned that foreign governments are seeking to break into American companies' cyber systems where crucial coronavirus research data is stored.
"We certainly have seen reconnaissance activity, and some intrusions, into some of those institutions, especially those that have publicly identified themselves as working on COVID-related research," FBI Deputy Assistant Director for the FBI Cyber Division Tonya Ugoretz told an Aspen Institute online panel discussion.
The FBI official described the spike in state-backed hacking cases comes as several Western bio-research companies could be on the cusp of developing breakthrough treatments and potentially a vaccine related to the ongoing pandemic, which over the past weeks has been ravaging the United States as the new global epicenter.
The flipside to companies publicizing their research, Ugoretz said in her comments this week, "is that it kind of makes them a mark for other nation-states that are interested in gleaning details about what exactly they're doing and maybe even stealing proprietary information that those institutions have."
"For example, if we see that a secure institution is a victim or has been targeted, we, of course, go out and work with them," Ugoretz continued. "Ideally, what we are doing is talking to healthcare institutions and research institutions before they have been a victim so that we can use the intelligence we have to identify the trends and identify who else is in the same category of the victims."
She noted the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center currently receives some 3,000 to 4,000 calls per day. Prior to the pandemic crisis hitting North America this figure was at 1,000.
The official did not name specific countries or bad actors; however, it follows a report from the WHO earlier this month, which described "a sustained digital bombardment" by hackers described as seeking internal information on the deadly coronavirus, further said to be "more than doubled" amid the pandemic crisis.
Western intelligence sources in early April fingered Iran as being behind the bulk of recent alleged hacks of international health organizations, including the UN.
Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, was cited by Reuters in the latest report as saying:
"Medical research organizations and those who work for them should be vigilant against threat actors seeking to steal intellectual property or other sensitive data related to America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
“Now is the time to protect the critical research you’re conducting,” he added.
The FBI further declined to comment on specific pending investigations. It's unclear whether the message was intended as purely a warning against potential future hacks, or the degree to which US companies have already experienced data thefts. The FBI's Ugoretz did say there were confirmed "intrusions" into "some" research institutions, however.