Coronavirus: New Zealand's GCSB begs hackers not to target COVID-19 research after Chinese accused of cyber attacks

New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is pleading with hackers not to target coronavirus research, after China-linked cyber attacks on US organisations.

The hackers are breaking into American organisations carrying out research into COVID-19, US officials say, warning both scientists and public health officials to be on the look-out for cyber theft.

In a joint statement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security said the FBI was investigating digital break-ins at US organisations by China-linked "cyber actors".

They had been monitored "attempting 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".

Coronavirus-related research and data have emerged as a key intelligence priority for hackers of all stripes and Western intelligence organisations have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the targeting of public health and pharmaceutical organisations.

In a separate statement, GCSB Director-General Andrew Hampton said it condemned any attempt to target COVID-19 response-related infrastructure.

"While New Zealand's critical infrastructure has not been compromised, we have seen activity such as COVID-19 themed phishing campaigns, seeking to exploit concern around COVID-19 to gain access to systems," he said.

"The targeting of such systems in any country, at any time is unacceptable, and is particularly deplorable in the midst of the current global health crisis.

"We call upon all cyber actors to refrain from activity that may jeopardise national or international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Last week, Reuters reported that Iran-linked cyberspies had targeted staff at US drug-maker Gilead Sciences Inc, whose antiviral drug remdesivir is the only treatment so far proven to help COVID-19 patients.