State-backed hackers are disrupting COVID-19 vaccine efforts

COVID-19 vaccine container and syringe
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Pharmaceutical companies researching treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 are being actively targeted by prominent nation state-backed hackers from Russia and North Korea.

Groups including Strontium, Zinc and Cerium are launching “unconscionable” cyber attacks against companies running trials for COVID-19 vaccines, one clinical research organisation and a company that’s developed a virus test, according to Microsoft.

The tech giant has outlined in detail the nature of the attacks it has detected, and attempted to mitigate, over the previous months, also suggesting a handful have been successful. Specifically, these three groups have actively targeted seven companies involved in researching vaccines and treatments.

“Two global issues will help shape people’s memories of this time in history – COVID-19 and the increased use of the internet by malign actors to disrupt society,” said Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust, Tom Burt. “It’s disturbing that these challenges have now merged as cyberattacks are being used to disrupt health care organizations fighting the pandemic.

“We think these attacks are unconscionable and should be condemned by all civilized society. Today, we’re sharing more about the attacks we’ve seen most recently and are urging governments to act.”

Strontium, allegedly linked with the Russian state, is using password spray and brute force attacks to steal login credentials, hoping to break into user accounts using millions of quickfire attempts.

Zinc, meanwhile, uses spear-phishing lures for credential theft, posing as recruiters to send fabricated job descriptions to potential candidates. Cerium also engages in spear-phishing email lures themed around coronavirus, masquerading as World Health Organisation (WHO) representatives. Both are allegedly tied with North Korea.

Microsoft claims that security protections embedded into its products blocked the majority of these attacks, but that some attacks have been successful.

The attempts to disrupt COVID-19 vaccine trials are only a small portion of an overall threat escalation that many organisations and businesses have sustained during 2020. In fact, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) reported that more than a quarter of all security incidents in the last year were related to COVID-19.

The company previously seized a host of domains used in COVID-19 phishing attacks in July, applying to a US District Court to take down a business email compromise operation. Phishing attacks, incidentally, have exploded in recent months, growing by 220% as cyber criminals continue to find ways to exploit the current situation.

Attempts to exploit COVID-19 have also arisen in the form of a new Android spyware strain that masquerades as a coronavirus contact tracing app, for example, among other forms of attack.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.