Jul 21, 2020 - World

U.S. charges Chinese hackers for targeting COVID-19 research

Illustration of a combination lock on a Chinese flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A federal grand jury has returned an 11-count indictment against two Chinese hackers for a "sweeping global computer intrusion campaign" that began over 10 years ago and recently targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines and treatments, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: It's believed to be the first time the U.S. government has charged foreign hackers with targeting coronavirus research, according to AP.

  • It's also the first time the Justice Department has brought charges against criminal hackers for activity done for their personal gain and for state-sponsored attacks, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said at a press conference.

The big picture: Intelligence officials have been warning of virus-related cyber intrusions for months.

Details: The Chinese hackers allegedly targeted robotics, aircraft and marine engineering, clean energy engineering, biotechnology, advanced rail technology, non-governmental organizations, human rights activists in the U.S., China and Hong Kong, as well as vaccine and testing development for the coronavirus, the Justice Department said.

  • In January 2020, hackers are alleged to have done reconnaissance on a Massachusetts firm conducting research on a coronavirus vaccine.
  • In February, a separate California business working on antiviral drugs was invaded, according to DOJ.
  • Most recently, the Chinese hackers sought vulnerabilities in a California firm working on diagnostic research for COVID test kits on May 12.

The bottom line: The Justice Department did not allege that the hackers succeeded in stealing coronavirus research, but officials pointed out that attempted hacks could still slow down research.

  • The DOJ said that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade secrets, intellectual property and other information was stolen over the decade-long hacking campaign.

What they're saying:

“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.
— Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers

Read the indictment via DocumentCloud.

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