China-linked hackers are targeting US research, FBI warns

Hackers linked to the Chinese government are trying to steal coronavirus-related research on vaccines, treatments, and testing, the FBI and a U.S. cybersecurity agency warned Wednesday.

The FBI, in a joint statement with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said it is investigating “the targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by [People’s Republic of China]-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors.”

The hackers have been caught attempting to “identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property” and public-health data related to coronavirus research, according to the statement.

“The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options,” the statement read.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, is a division of the Homeland Security Department. 

The federal agencies urged all U.S. organizations researching the virus to beef up their cybersecurity practices to “prevent surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material.”

The coronavirus originated near the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province and has since grown to a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. harder than any other country, according to data on confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths. More than 1.3 million cases and at least 82,389 deaths have so far been counted in the U.S., data from Johns Hopkins University show.

U.S. political leaders and health experts have said that the world may not be relieved of the disease’s massive impact on daily life, which has brought the U.S. economy to a virtual standstill, until an effective vaccine is made widely available

But even if a vaccine is developed at a breakneck pace, it could still be at least a year to 18 months away.

“Biomedical research has long been at the heart of something the Chinese have wanted and something they have engaged in economic espionage to get,” John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, told CNBC on Monday.

“It would be crazy to think that right now, the Chinese were not behind some of the cyber activity we’re seeing targeting U.S. pharmaceutical companies and targeting research institutes around the country that are doing coronavirus research, treatments and vaccines,” Demers said on “The Exchange.”

The unfolding health crisis caused by the coronavirus is the latest issue to rattle relations between Beijing and Washington. The world’s two largest economies were already engaged in a disruptive trade war with intellectual property theft proving to be a major sticking point between the two parties.

U.S. officials have long complained that Chinese intellectual property theft has cost the economy billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs and that it threatens national security. China maintains that it does not engage in intellectual property theft.

The F-35, the crown jewel in the defense giant’s portfolio, had its sensitive design and electronics data compromised in 2009. Chinese hackers were believed to be behind the cyber intrusion.

China later announced it was developing its own fifth-generation fighter, the stealth Shenyang J-31 jet, which bears a striking resemblance to the F-35.

The Trump administration is also working to isolate Chinese tech firm Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, from developing a larger foothold in U.S. partner countries.

China’s actions have received bipartisan criticism: Earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-calif., took a hard stand against doing business with Huawei, and warned other nations not to deal with the company.

After years of negotiations, the Trump administration and the Chinese government in January signed the first phase of a trade agreement. But President Donald Trump has in recent weeks blamed China for the virus and sharply criticized its handling of the outbreak.

“It could have been stopped right where it came from,” Trump said in March.

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted, “We just made a great Trade Deal, the ink was barely dry, and the World was hit by the Plague from China.”

“100 Trade Deals wouldn’t make up the difference – and all those innocent lives lost!” Trump wrote.

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