The great coronavirus vaccine hacking arms race - analysis

Where does this leave China, US, Israel and Russia?

Hacker (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
The US accusation on Wednesday, against China-linked hackers of trying to break into American organizations carrying out research into COVID-19, was just the latest in the newest hacking arms race.
England has reported that Russia successfully hacked some of its institutions working on the coronavirus vaccine.
A probe of the cyberattack by the cyber arm of the United Kingdom’s GCHQ intelligence agency found that there were Kremlin-linked hackers involved who were based in Georgia and had a history of working for the Russian Security Services.
In early April, Israel National Cyber Directorate (INCD) chief, Yigal Unna, said that important aspects of the country’s efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus are networked and are vulnerable to a variety of cyberattacks.
Speaking as part of a videoconference event on cybertech, Unna said that the INCD has been in overdrive to protect a wide range of the health industry’s exponentially expanded online exposure in the age of corona.
There have also been reports of Iran trying to hack various countries’ progress toward a corona vaccine.
Why might so many countries be trying to hack each other’s vaccine research instead of trying to cooperate together to solve the problem for the world all at once?
Probably for the same reasons that competition over masks, ventilators, testing equipment and other medical supplies to combat corona was so out of control – plus the vaccine is the holy grail of these battles.
It is everyone, or rather every country, for themselves.
There are not enough resources for everyone, and certainly when a vaccine is perfected, it will be a long time before there is enough for everyone – if there ever is.
So whoever cracks it first can start vaccinating their population first.
Next, whoever cracks it first can potentially make a fortune by charging a premium to sell it to other countries who have not cracked it yet and are willing to pay.
Finally, bragging rights in the corona era are at a premium.
No countries have really done well. Everyone has lost large numbers of citizens and had mass infections.
But the alleged hackers: Russia, China and Iran, all fared particularly badly – no one really knows how China did because they have censored information, but much of the world is angry that China suppressed negligently information about the outbreak (this is without getting into conspiracy theories of something more intentional).
Whoever cracks the vaccine though will be glorified world-wide.
People may remember the losses, but the end final chapter of corona history which will set the post-corona era tone will be who finally beat it.
So how significant are the hacks to date?
The US warning on Wednesday was not as complete and detailed as completed investigations of past Russian or Chinese hacks.
This means it was more to spread the warning to scientists and public health officials to be on the lookout for cybertheft, as well as to take another political shot at China in the ongoing US-China feud over the corona crisis.
In a joint statement, the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security said they had monitored attempts “to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research.”
The statement offered no further details on the identities of the targets or the hackers. The Chinese Embassy in Washington condemned the allegations as “lies.”
“The FBI issued a warning based on presumption of guilt and without any evidence,” the embassy said in a written statement, adding the US accusation “undercuts the ongoing international cooperation against the pandemic.”
In contrast to these initial accusations against China which also did not make it clear how successful the hacks were, British authorities have admitted that recent Russian hacks against them were at least partially successful in stealing certain information.
In a separate statement issued earlier on Wednesday, the head of New Zealand’s signals intelligence agency said it condemned any attempt to target COVID response-related infrastructure.
“We call upon all cyber actors to refrain from activity that may jeopardize national or international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Andrew Hampton, the director-general of New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau.
In March and April, Reuters reported on advanced hackers’ attempts to break into the World Health Organization as the pandemic spread across the globe.
Despite the atmosphere of concern surrounding corona vaccine efforts, Unna supported medical supplies and technologies being brought to Israel by China and others, while saying his unit would manage any potential cyber vulnerabilities.
Throughout 2018-2019 prior to the corona era, top Israeli defense officials told the The Jerusalem Post that concerns about the Chinese using technological and infrastructure footprints in Israel to spy were real and based on evidence from patterns that have already occurred elsewhere.
But at the same time, Israel has barreled forward with billions of dollars of additional major Chinese investments in Israeli technology and infrastructure, even over strenuous US objections.
There is an interesting question about whether Israel trusts the Chinese – Israeli officials are certainty less suspicious on average than their US counterparts – or has decided that it needs to bond with Beijing, with or without trust, as a simple factual recognition of China’s rising power globally.
Former Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), cyber and other national security officials have differing views on the issue depending on how crucial they think China is to Israel’s future diplomatic posture.
It may also make sense for the US and Israel to view China differently, being that Israel may benefit from cozying up a powerhouse like China even if there is some sacrifice in technology theft, whereas the US and China are in the midst of a great-power race for geopolitical dominance of the next 50 years.
Despite all of these concerns, no one has yet finalized a vaccine, so the hacks to really keep an eye on may be those down the road, a few months or even a year from now.
In any event, the race for a vaccine and the cyber-spying surrounding it will be a major source of tension for the foreseeable future.

Reuters contributed to this report.