Iran and Russia launch hacking attacks on British universities in attempt to steal coronavirus vaccine secrets
British institutions fighting Covid-19 have been subject to cyber attacks traced back to Russia and Iran, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Hackers linked to hostile states have targeted UK universities attempting to produce vaccines and testing kits as well as scientists and doctors studying the virus.
Spy bosses at the National Cyber Security Centre branded the attacks ‘utterly reprehensible’ and confirmed they were working ‘round the clock’ to battle the online menace.
Security and Whitehall figures have revealed a sustained attempt to target Britain’s efforts to fight the virus by accessing emails and servers in universities and scientific facilities. One said: ‘It looks like they’re trying to steal or borrow information about our response to coronavirus.’
A separate security source said: ‘This problem – intellectual property theft and a blurred line between state and serious crime – has been around for a while but there’s obviously now an increased need to ensure we protect UK PLC and its assets.’
However, it is understood that so far no major attack has been successful – and there has been no attack on NHS computer systems, as happened in May 2017 with devastating effect.
The incidents mirror activity detected in the US last week. The director of America’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Bill Evanina, said the US government had warned all its medical research organisations of the threat.
He told the BBC: ‘We have been working… to ensure they are protecting all the research and data as best they can.
'We have every expectation foreign intelligence services, to include the Chinese Communist Party, will attempt to obtain what we are making here.’
Britain’s security services and online crime fighters have passed a similar warning to UK researchers. Last night, Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Committee, said Britain should ‘not hesitate in retaliating appropriately’. He added: ‘The global distraction of Covid-19 provides the perfect fog of war to conduct cyber attacks. Especially when the prize of a vaccine is so huge.’
The National Cyber Security Centre said: ‘We have seen an increased proportion of cyber attacks related to coronavirus and our experts work around-the-clock to help organisations targeted.’