Foreign spies and cyber criminals targeting UK during coronavirus crisis, warns Raab

5 May 2020, 17:43

Dominic Raab said foreign spies and hackers have been targeting the UK
Dominic Raab said foreign spies and hackers have been targeting the UK. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

The Foreign Secretary today issued an urgent warning to businesses and medical research groups over “dangerous and venal” cyber gangs and foreign spies that have been targeting the NHS and other bodies during the Covid-19 crisis.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday: “We have clear evidence that these criminal gangs are actively targeting national and international organisations which are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic which, I have to say, makes them particularly dangerous and venal at this time.”

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), sent a joint warning today, urging organisations to bolster privacy measures to avoid falling prey to “sophisticated networks of hackers”.

Mr Raab added that individuals, businesses and other groups have become victims of “Covid-19 related scams and phishing emails” during the pandemic.

Authorities have identified mass ‘password spraying’ campaigns against healthcare and medical bodies by ‘advanced persistent threat’ cyber criminals and foreign spies trying to steal personal information, intellectual property and intelligence related to the outbreak.

The NCSC said attacks “will increase” over the coming weeks and months, adding it is “working closely” with the NHS to protect computer systems.

Officials are advising staff at organisations to change passwords that could be guessed with three random words and bring in two-factor authentication on devices.

It comes after the NCSC said that hostile states are attempting to hack British universities and scientific facilities to steal Covid-19 research, including teams developing vaccines at Oxford and Imperial College.

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Mr Raab added: ”Whilst the vast majority of people and countries have come together and rallied to the international mission to defeat coronavirus, there will always be some that seek to exploit a crisis for their own criminal and hostile ends.

“We are working with the targets of those attacks, with the potential targets and others to make sure they’re aware of the cyber threat and that they can take the steps necessary to protect themselves or at the very least mitigate the harm that could be wrought against them.”

Paul Chichester, NCSC director of operations, added: “By prioritising any requests for support from health organisations and remaining in close contact with industries involved in the coronavirus response, we can inform them of any malicious activity and take the necessary steps to help them defend against it.

“But we can’t do this alone, and we recommend healthcare policy makers and researchers take our actionable steps to defend themselves from password spraying campaigns.”