China might not want to share its actual data on COVID-19, but they want a share of ours — or so US intelligence and the Trump administration have concluded. The FBI and Homeland Security will issue a public warning later this week accusing China of attempting to hack into research efforts for vaccines and treatments for the novel coronavirus that burst out of Wuhan, the New York Times reports today. The warning may serve as a “shot across the bow” of Beijing as the finding would authorize the use of retaliatory cyberwarfare measures:
The F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security are preparing to issue a warning that China’s most skilled hackers and spies are working to steal American research in the crash effort to develop vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. The efforts are part of a surge in cybertheft and attacks by nations seeking advantage in the pandemic. …
A draft of the forthcoming public warning, which officials say is likely to be issued in the days to come, says China is seeking “valuable intellectual property and public health data through illicit means related to vaccines, treatments and testing.” It focuses on cybertheft and action by “nontraditional actors,” a euphemism for researchers and students the Trump administration says are being activated to steal data from inside academic and private laboratories.
The decision to issue a specific accusation against China’s state-run hacking teams, current and former officials said, is part of a broader deterrent strategy that also involves United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. Under legal authorities that President Trump issued nearly two years ago, they have the power to bore deeply into Chinese and other networks to mount proportional counterattacks. This would be similar to their effort 18 months ago to strike at Russian intelligence groups seeking to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections and to put malware in the Russian power grid as a warning to Moscow for its attacks on American utilities.
But it is unclear exactly what the U.S. has done, if anything, to send a similar shot across the bow to the Chinese hacking groups, including those most closely tied to China’s new Strategic Support Force, its equivalent of Cyber Command, the Ministry of State Security and other intelligence units.
That’s a good question, but it’s one that should have been asked years ago. China’s known cyberwarfare stretches back at least as far as the 2013 warning from the Pentagon that China had conducted cyberwarfare against their systems for years. Sure enough, the exposure two years later of their penetration into the Office of Personnel Management proved that point, reinforced as recently as their hack of Equifax. The question about actions taken in retaliation should have been asked at those points rather than at this belated juncture.