The U.S. government plans to issue a warning that hackers tied to the Chinese government are attempting to steal information from researchers working to develop a coronavirus vaccine, U.S. officials said.
The warning from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security will also specify the threat as coming from “non-traditional actors” such as Chinese students and researchers in the United States, said one official, who like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data,” a draft of the warning says, according to the official.
There is no indication that any attempt thus far has been successful, said a second official. The expected warning should be out within a week or so.
Asked about the warning, which was first reported by the New York Times, Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said, “We firmly oppose and fight all kinds of cyber attacks conducted by hackers. We are leading the world in covid-19 treatment and vaccine research. It is immoral to target China with rumors and slanders in the absence of any evidence.”
Spokespeople for the FBI and DHS declined to comment.
The planned alert likely will exacerbate already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And it coincides with heightened efforts by the Trump administration to draw attention to China’s long-running campaign to steal U.S. secrets and intellectual property – including biomedical research – to gain advantage in the global economy.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have suggested that the virus originated or leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, though the government has produced no evidence to back that assertion.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence last month said the intelligence community will continue to look into “whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
The lab has denied it was the source of the virus.
Beijing, for its part, has falsely suggested that the U.S. Army may have “brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” seeking to fuel a coronavirus conspiracy theory.
The expected alert also will come as private security researchers say they have seen commercial and government organizations developing treatments for covid-19 being targeted by government-linked hackers in China, Iran and Russia.
“Intense intelligence collection on covid-19 may have begun as early as January,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm. “We believe Vietnamese actors started targeting the Chinese government for this information around then.”
Hulquist noted the pandemic is “an existential threat” to governments around the world. So, he said, “we expect intelligence services to aggressively collect information from organizations involved in the response, regardless of their commercial ties.”
The joint advisory also will urge victims to contact the FBI and will provide DHS-recommended resources for protecting data.