Organisations conducting research into Covid-19 may be targeted by computer hackers linked to the Chinese government, according to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Neither agency cited any specific examples, but warned on Wednesday that institutions and companies involved in vaccines, treatments and testing for the coronavirus should take additional security measures to protect data and be aware of the potential threat.
“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to Covid-19,” the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in a statement. “This announcement is intended to raise awareness for research institutions and the American public and provide resources and guidance for those who may be targeted.”
On Monday, when media reports emerged of the upcoming security warning, Donald Trump said: “What else is new with China? What else is new? Tell me. I’m not happy with China.”
China has defended its response to the virus, and on Monday foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied the government was involved in any attempt to steal virus-related data.
“China is a staunch upholder of cyber security and a victim of cyber attacks,” he 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 rumours and slanders in the absence of any evidence.”
On Weibo, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of state media organisation the Global Times, dismissed the accusation as a “gimmick” and “just a new attack point”. He said the US would continue accusing China of concealing the epidemic for a long time, “because this accusation is particularly in line with the long-term distortion of China’s image by the US and western opinion”.
“Various new accusations would follow,” he said. In his post and an accompanying video, Hu predicted the main accusations were gradually moving from “Wuhan virus” to “stealing the US vaccine [research]”.
It comes amid heightened tensions between the two countries over the source of the outbreak and Trump administration complaints that China did not adequately alert the world to the danger posed by the coronavirus.
The warning also echoes longstanding US complaints that China has engaged in the wholesale theft of technology and trade secrets to build its economy.
Institutions that have received media attention for their efforts related to Covid-19 should assume they would be targeted and take precautions, the Department of Justice said.
“The potential theft of this information jeopardises the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options,” it said.
The FBI and the cybersecurity agency said they were issuing the alert to raise awareness of the potential threat and said additional technical details would be released in the coming days.
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang and Associated Press