May 27, 2020 - Technology

Inside hackers' pivot to medical espionage

Illustration of a surgical mask with eye holes cut out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A wave of cyber-spying around COVID-19 medical research is once more demonstrating the perils of treating cybersecurity as a separate, walled-off realm.

Driving the news: U.S. officials recently announced an uptick in Chinese-government affiliated hackers targeting medical research and other facilities in the United States for data on a potential COVID-19 cure or effective treatments to combat the virus. Additionally, “more than a dozen countries have redeployed military and intelligence hackers to glean whatever they can about other nations’ virus responses,” reports the New York Times.

  • According to a recent FBI bulletin, “nation-state cyber actors are targeting COVID-19-related research as many foreign governments seek to accelerate their own R&D processes and clinical trials.”
  • Since February, suspected foreign government hackers have compromised the systems of a “healthcare-related” company, a “U.S. research entity,” and have targeted other medical, pharmaceutical, and academic institutions, says the Bureau.

The big picture: For years, policymakers and media outlets have stowed cybersecurity threats and conflicts away in their own specialized silo. But the world of cyberespionage isn’t really separate at all: it’s just another means for countries to pursue their tactical and strategic objectives.

  • “When there’s a cyberintrusion and exfiltration of a defense industrial contractor, that’s not a cyber case, that’s a counterintelligence case,” said a current senior U.S. intelligence official. “The Ministry of State Security” — China’s main civilian intelligence agency — “or PLA are doing that. I have not been able to convince people of that. Because we’ve created this world of cyber, and it’s like floating in the Atlantic… We cannot get off that island. It’s really frustrating.”

Of course the world’s spies are trying to purloin vaccine research: Nothing is more valuable right now, anywhere on the planet. The country that’s first with a vaccine will, in theory, benefit immensely. Elections may be won or lost because of it. Industries and entire economies hang in the balance. Social stability may depend on vaccine access.

There are also subtler benefits of a vaccine: the soft power accrued to whoever develops and shares it internationally, as well as the potential profits from what should be a global, compulsory, vaccination campaign — and one that may be required at regular intervals, like a flu shot.

Between the lines: The pandemic took an already accelerating trend toward the virtualization of our work and private lives and kicked it into overdrive.

  • What holds true for us as individuals also holds true for states.They’re spying more online because more of life is being lived online. And, right now, many of them want to steal medical research on COVID-19.
  • As Alex Orleans, a cyber threat intelligence researcher, tweeted: “The most tedious part of COVID-19 lockdown is everyone being (or pretending to be) shocked by the universal and long-standing truth that everybody spies on everybody else.”

Why it matters: We won’t be able to understand or predict where the next threats will emerge unless we get better at integrating the stuff we call “cyber” with all the other ways we think about the world.

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