Britain, the United States and Canada accused Russian hackers on Thursday of trying to steal information from researchers seeking a coronavirus vaccine, warning scientists and pharmaceutical companies to be alert for suspicious activity.
Intelligence agencies in the three nations alleged that the hacking group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear and said to be part of the Russian intelligence services, is attacking academic and pharmaceutical research institutions involved in COVID-19 vaccine development.
“It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic,″ British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement, accusing Moscow of pursuing “selfish interests with reckless behavior.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected the British accusations, saying: “We don’t have information about who may have hacked pharmaceutical companies and research centers in Britain.”
“We may say one thing: Russia has nothing to do with those attempts,” Peskov said, according to the state news agency Tass. The persistent and ongoing attacks are seen by intelligence officials as an effort to steal intellectual property, rather than to disrupt research.
The campaign of “malicious activity″ is ongoing and includes attacks “predominantly against government, diplomatic, think tank, health care and energy targets,″ Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre said in a statement.
Britain’s NCSC said its assessment was shared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency and the National Security Agency, and by the Canadian Communication Security Establishment.
The move at a coordinated position seemed designed to add heft and gravity to the announcement — hopefully prompting the targets of the hackers to take protective action.
It was unclear whether any information actually was stolen, but the U.K. says individuals’ confidential information is not believed to have been compromised.
The U.K. statement did not say whether Putin knew about the vaccine research hacking, but British officials believe such intelligence would be highly prized.
A 16-page advisory prepared by Western agencies accuses Cozy Bear of using custom malicious software to target a number of organizations globally. The malware, called WellMess and WellMail, has not previously been associated with the hacking group, the advisory said.
“In recent attacks targeting COVID-19 vaccine research and development, the group conducted basic vulnerability scanning against specific external IP addresses owned by the organizations. The group then deployed public exploits against the vulnerable services identified,” the advisory said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency warned in April that cybercriminals and other groups were targeting COVID-19 research, noting at the time that the increase in people teleworking because of the pandemic had created potential avenues for hackers to exploit.
The global reach and international supply chains of these organizations also make them vulnerable, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in an alert published in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain.
CISA said it and the British cyberseucity agency have detected the threat groups scanning the external websites of targeted companies and looking for vulnerabilities in unpatched software. It did not identify any of the targeted companies. U.S. authorities have for months leveled similar accusations against China. FBI Director Chris Wray said last week, “At this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research.”
Mike Chapple, an information technology expert at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said the Russian hackers realized that knowledge is power when it comes to COVID-19.
“I think the biggest takeaway from these attacks is that other countries are actively targeting the health research industry and we’re seeing the pharmaceutical companies and others being targeted because they have the information that can be used to help alleviate this global pandemic,″ he said. “It’s reasonable to conclude that the coronavirus is the No. 1 priority of every intelligence agency around the world right now.″