COVID-19 , Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

Lawmakers Demand Details on Fighting China-Linked Hacking

Briefings Sought on COVID-19-Related Cyber Espionage and Risk Mitigation Efforts
Lawmakers Demand Details on Fighting China-Linked Hacking
Photo: US Capital via Flickr/CC

A bipartisan group of U.S lawmakers is requesting more information from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency about efforts to crack down on hacking groups linked to China's government that are targeting American facilities conducting COVID-19 research.

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Earlier this month, the FBI and CISA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, issued an alert that hacking group linked with China's government were targeting U.S. research facilities and healthcare organizations that are conducting vaccines trials and testing treatments for COVID-19 (see: US Says China-Linked Hackers Targeting COVID-19 Researchers).

That alert, which contained only sketchy details, confirmed previous reports that the FBI had seen an increase in nation-state hackers targeting prominent research facilities throughout the U.S. (see: FBI: Hackers Targeting US COVID-19 Research Facilities).

Now, some lawmakers are asking for more details. In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and CISA Director Christopher Krebs, four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee request a classified briefing about these cyber espionage issues by June 20.

The signers of that letter include Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and John Cornyn R-Texas. The senators pose three questions about the battle against the hackers:

  • What legal tools or additional statutory authority do the FBI and CISA need to better combat state-sponsored hacking of American companies?
  • Do the two agencies need additional money or resources to counter these threats?
  • What steps are CISA and the FBI taking to work with these companies to alert them of these threats, and what can both agencies due to improve cybersecurity within research and healthcare facilities conducting COVID-19 research?

"Any action that affects the development of treatment options - including attempted theft of American intellectual property - is a threat to our health, economic recovery and national security,” the senators write in the letter. "It is absolutely unacceptable for Chinese government-affiliated hackers to attempt to steal or disrupt important research from companies and institutions who are developing essential diagnostics, cures and treatments."

Second Letter

In a second letter, Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also wrote to Wray and Krebs to request a briefing by June 22. None of the Democrats on the committee signed this letter.

"We applaud your work in notifying the public to raise awareness of these threats and appreciate the resources and guidance you are providing to institutions that may be targeted. Given the critical nature of the COVID-19 research being conducted at U.S. institutions, it is imperative they take the proper steps to secure their networks and take advantage of the resources your agencies have without delay," the letter states.

Because the House committee has oversight over the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the GOP congressmen write that they what to know what is being done to develop new cybersecurity guidelines for private-sector firms conducting this type of research.

Neither the FBI nor CISA could be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.

Other Attacks

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, organizations around the world, especially those involved in healthcare, have reported an increase in state-sponsored attacks. In March, for instance, the World Health Organization appears to have been targeted by hacking group (see: Hackers Targeted World Health Organization)

Around the same time, the network of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was targeted by suspected foreign state actors who attempted to disrupt the agency's COVID-19 response efforts, according to Bloomberg.

In April, the U.K. National Cyber Security Center and CISA issued a joint warning that hacking groups associated with nation-state governments are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic as part of their cyber operations (see: UK and US Security Agencies Sound COVID-19 Threat Alert).

About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent, ISMG

Asokan is a U.K.-based senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She previously worked with IDG and other publications, reporting on developments in technology, minority rights and education.

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