The hacking of British research into a coronavirus vaccine was allegedly carried out by a Russian cyber group which was also involved in stealing and disseminating information from Democratic Party computers in the run-up to the 2016 US election which put Donald Trump in the White House.
The group APT29, also known as Cozy Bears, was named by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) as being behind the targeting of British, American and Canadian organisations involved in missions to find a counter to the pandemic.
Scientists at Oxford University and London’s Imperial College are at present leading the research into finding a vaccine for Covid-19 and the UK has recently been earmarked, say security officials, for attacks by Kremlin connected groups.
Cozy Bear, linked to the Russian intelligence service FSB as well as military intelligence arm GRU, is said to have developed new types of malware packages for attacks codenamed “Operation Ghost” by Western security officials. Their targets in the US have included the Pentagon and the State Department during the Obama administration, and Norwegian and Dutch ministries in 2017.
The group’s activities in recent months have been devoted to research into coronavirus, according to security officials. The NSPCC, which is part of GCHQ, the British government’s communications headquarters, had previously warned of advanced persistent threat (APT) hackers carrying out attack related to coronavirus both in Britain and abroad.
The UK became linked to the hacking of the Democratic Party emails with claims that Julian Assange, then seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, worked with the Russians to make them public, an act which greatly damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign and helped that of Mr Trump. Assange has denied the accusations.
Roger Stone, who special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference into the US election concluded had been in liaison with Mr Assange, last week had his prison sentence commuted by Mr Trump. Assange remains incarcerated at the maximum security Belmarsh prison, facing extradition to the US and a possible 150-year sentence on separate charges of hacking Pentagon computers.
Meanwhile, the threat of illicit attacks on Covid-19 related matters is likely to continue, says the NCSC. The Cyber Centre said that it was 95 per cent sure that APT29 is part of Russian intelligence services, an assessment supported by the Canadian Communication Security Establishment, the US Department for Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, and the National Security Agency (NSA).
The NCSC concluded in a report: “APT29 is likely to continue to target organisations involved in Covid-19 vaccine research and development, as they seek to answer additional intelligence questions relating to the pandemic.”
Paul Chichester, NCSC director of operations, 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.”
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, declared that it was “completely unacceptable” for Russian intelligence services to target research on the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said: “While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health. The UK will continue to counter those conducting such cyber attacks, and work with our allies to hold perpetrators to account.”
In the US, the director of cybersecurity at the NSA said: “We, along with our partners, remains steadfast in its commitment to protecting national security by collectively issuing this critical cybersecurity advisory as foreign actors continue to take advantage of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic,”
Anne Neurberger continued: “APT29 has a long history of targeting governmental, diplomatic, think-tank, healthcare and energy organisations for intelligence gain so we encourage everyone to take this threat seriously and apply the mitigations issued in the advisory.”
In Moscow, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted: “We do not have information about who may have hacked into pharmaceutical companies and research centres in Great Britain. We can say one thing – Russia has nothing at all to do with these attempts. We do not accept such accusations.”