Malicious actors working on behalf of foreign states have attempted to steal data from British universities on COVID-19 research, according to cybersecurity experts.
The cyber attacks have been traced back to both Russia and Iran, but the experts say that China is potentially making similar attempts.
While attempts thus far have been unsuccessful, it is believed that hackers are searching for data related to vaccine development.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has called the attacks “reprehensible”, with a spokesperson from the organisation stating: “Any attack against efforts to combat the coronavirus crisis is utterly reprehensible.
“We have seen an increased proportion of cyber attacks related to coronavirus and our experts work around the clock to help organisations targeted. However, the overall level of cyber-attacks from both criminals and states against the UK has remained stable during the pandemic.”
Many British universities with biomedical capacity are researching COVID-19, ranging from new diagnostic and antibody tests to experimental treatment.
The University of Oxford, a world-leader in vaccine research, is currently working alongside pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca on the development, manufacturing and potential distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The university has now begun human trials, which cybersecurity experts warned makes it a prime target for hostile nations looking to gain the upper hand in their vaccine development.
A spokesperson from the university commented: “Oxford University is working closely with the NCSC to ensure our COVID-19 research has the best possible cybersecurity and protection.”
- Scottish Tech Sector Facing Serious Challenges Due to Coronavirus Pandemic
- How Can Digital Technology Build a Sustainable Future and Deliver Impact?
- Social Media Sites ‘Making it Easy’ for Scammers to Trade Stolen Information
James Sullivan, a former cyber analyst for the National Crime Agency and head of cyber research at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Guardian: “The pandemic will lead to a general increase in hostile state cyber-activity.
“It is a new opportunity for intelligence gathering and disruption. We’ve seen this with disinformation campaigns, cyber-espionage; there’s a risk of these all exacerbating political tension and it’s no surprise this is happening in an area such as the development of a vaccine.”
He added: “As we’ve seen with cyber-attacks, whether it’s a hostile nation-state or an organised criminal, there are no real boundaries to the types of data they try to steal, so why would this be any different if the development of a vaccine is a very competitive area? We’re seeing those geopolitical tensions played out in this space.”