US claims Chinese hackers targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines

22 July 2020, 08:16

The Justice Department has filed criminal charges in federal court in Washington state
The Justice Department has filed criminal charges in federal court in Washington state. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The US has accused hackers working with China of targeting companies which are developing coronavirus vaccines, according to court documents revealed on Tuesday.

The Justice Department has filed criminal charges in federal court in Washington state against two Chinese hackers, thought it does not accuse them of obtaining the research.

It claims Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi managed to steal hundreds of millions of pounds worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from firms worldwide.

The indictment says the hackers in recent months researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of Massachusetts and Maryland companies known for their work in developing vaccines and treatments.

The indictment includes charges of trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy against the hackers, who prosecutors say stole information of interest to the Chinese government.

The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded on Tuesday that they were not likely to step foot in an American courtroom.

But the indictment carries important symbolic and deterrence value for the Justice Department, which decided that publicly calling out the behaviour was more worthwhile than waiting for the unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the US and risk arrest.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John C Demers, said in a statement: “China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran, and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being “on call” to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist Party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including Covid-19 research.”

It comes a week after the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned hackers linked to the Russian intelligence agencies are targeting British scientists seeking to develop a vaccine.

In a joint statement with the US National Security Agency and the Canadian Communication Security Establishment, the NCSC said the attacks were part of a global campaign by the group known as APT29 to steal the secrets of vaccine research.

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NCSC director of operations Paul Chichester said: "We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

"Working with our allies, the NCSC is committed to protecting our most critical assets and our top priority at this time is to protect the health sector.

"We would urge organisations to familiarise themselves with the advice we have published to help defend their networks."

Russia has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, hitting back with saying the allegations were, themselves, "unacceptable".

The UK is home to two of the leading research programmes to develop a vaccine based at Oxford University and Imperial College London.