US federal agencies say they are on high alert for cyberattacks out of China targeting health research and pharmaceutical companies in efforts to steal coveted and valuable coronavirus data and possible breakthrough solutions to the pandemic, such as vaccines and experimental treatments.
The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI further have issued a "public service announcement" of what they called a "significant threat", saying health research sectors "working on a COVID-19 response should all be aware they are the prime targets of this activity and take the necessary steps to protect their systems."
While over the past month some international health bodies as well as US agencies have singled out Iran as a main perpetrator of COVID-19 related data theft and hacks, US officials threw the spotlight on Beijing this week.
“China’s long history of bad behavior in cyberspace is well documented, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone they are going after the critical organizations involved in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told The New York Times earlier this week.
The FBI and CISA recommended that research institutions "patch all systems for critical vulnerabilities, prioritizing timely patching for known vulnerabilities of internet-connected servers and software processing internet data."
- The agencies pressed institutions to scan for unauthorized access, modification or anomalous activities and to improve internal credential requirements to gain access to research.
- They also cautioned that increased media attention about virus research done by a specific organization will lead to increased "cyber activity."
Chinese state actors already have a long recent history of intellectual property theft, which was one of the driving elements behind growing Trump administration criticisms which led to the trade war. And on that front, as we reported Tuesday amid the coronavirus data theft warnings, it appears the feds may have reeled in their first big fish:
The government on Monday unsealed a wire fraud charge against a University of Arkansas professor and NASA researcher with ties to the Chinese government. Simon Saw-Teong Ang allegedly failed to disclose ties with the Chinese government and Chinese companies while also being employed as a professor at the University of Arkansas and accepting NASA research grant money.
Specifically the court documents allege that "Ang had close ties with the Chinese government and Chinese companies, and failed to disclose those ties when required to do so in order to receive grant money from NASA."
The court documents further say Ang simultaneously held positions in China while also being under official employment at the University of Arkansas. The FBI was reportedly tipped off after his name was mentioned in a Chinese news article highlighting his achievements as part of a program called Thousand Talent Program scholars.
This comes after a series of similar cases uncovered and investigated by the FBI of Chinese nationals with ongoing ties to state-linked entities in the communist country being found in high positions at US research universities and labs, such as a recent example at Emory University.
To be expected, Chinese officials and state media hit back Thursday, turning it back on Washington, charging that it's actually the US which "has a history of perpetrating the largest cyber-theft worldwide" and adding it's China that should be worried about its own COVID-19 research.
The US has a history of perpetrating the largest cyber-theft worldwide. China has more reasons to worry about its own #COVID19 research stolen, as it leads the field, said a FM spokesperson on Thu. FBI and DHS earlier claimed that Chinese hackers are targeting US' COVID-19 R&D. pic.twitter.com/sPLtM7q1HE— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) May 14, 2020
“We are leading the world in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research,” China's Foreign Ministry said at the start of the week. “It is immoral to target China with rumors and slanders in the absence of any evidence.”
But with US-China relations arguably at their lowest point in history, more such instances are likely to be spotlighted and investigated.
Ang himself knew full well the illegality of concealing his ties while receiving NASA funding, and essentially confessed his concealment of continuing links to China in private communications. Emails revealed as part of the court case show he previously wrote to a colleague in China: "Not many people here know I am [a Thousand talents program scholar] but if this leaks out, my job here will be in deep troubles," according to ABC. "I have to be very careful or else I may be out of my job from this university."