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FBI, CISA warn against Chinese targeting of COVID-19 research organizations

Posted at 3:36 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-27 18:43:36-04

CLEVELAND — The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency are warning organizations researching COVID-19 of a threat by the People's Republic of China. Health care, pharmaceutical and research sectors working on COVID-19 response were informed they are the prime targets and need to take the necessary steps to protect their systems, according to the FBI.

"These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19 related research," the FBI said in a public service announcement.

Northeast Ohio is home to some of the best health care facilities and brightest researchers in the world.

"We absolutely are a target," said Jeff Fortunato, Assistant Special in Charge, Cleveland FBI.

Hospitals and research facilities are cautioned they may be susceptible to targeting and network compromise, if they're working on a COVID-19 treatment, cure, or vaccine, according to the FBI.

"There is world class research going on here in Cleveland and for sure, you can be sure of it, the Chinese government and Chinese actors are very well aware of research being done here in Cleveland, Ohio," said Fortunato.

The FBI is now investigating the targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations across the country that are working on COVID-19 related research.

Fortunato said the Chinese government is looking to gain the information two ways.

First, by compromising computer networks, and second: "We also worry about the non-traditional collector, what I mean by that is the folks here in the United States who have a hidden relationship with the Chinese government and acquiring the information is either at the direct request of the Chinese government or indirectly supporting efforts to acquire U.S. information," he explained. There are victims across the country.

"China is trying to gain global prominence by discovering a vaccine first," said Juscelino Colares, Case Western Reserve University Professor of Law.

"The Chinese Communist Party casts a very long shadow over the information they want right now. They are going through the same public health crisis the United States is and we have something they want, some of the best research in the world as it relates to COVID-19 and some is happening right here in Cleveland, Ohio," said Fortunato.

We reached out to University Hospitals, MetroHealth Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic for comment.

"We don’t have anything specific to share related to this, but have security measures and safeguards in place that protect us against these types of threats," according to a statement from the Cleveland Clinic.

University Hospitals provided this statement:

“University Hospitals has security protections in place, including the requirement of 2-step login for employees outside our facilities. This requires an individual to provide secondary proof of their identity to log in, beyond just a username and password. In addition to the standard security protections, UH also has various controls around phishing attempts which is a way hackers try to get access to organizational networks. For example, we use a scanning tool that reviews website links inside emails to ensure their legitimacy.”

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