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US and UK Warn of Adversaries Targeting COVID-19 Responders

Advanced persistent threat (APT) groups continue to leverage the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis in cyberattacks, the United States and United Kingdom said in a joint alert today. 

Advanced persistent threat (APT) groups continue to leverage the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis in cyberattacks, the United States and United Kingdom said in a joint alert today. 

For several months, threat actors adapted their operations to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the efficiency of their malicious attacks, including surveillance (Libya and Syria) and espionage campaigns. 

Several weeks ago, Google, which was seeing around 18 million pandemic-themed malware or phishing messages per day, revealed that nation-backed hackers were targeting healthcare organizations and those engaged in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

Today, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned that APT groups are “actively targeting organizations involved in both national and international COVID-19 responses.”

The nation-states target healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organizations, and local governments, looking to collect bulk personal information, intellectual property, and other type of data that “aligns with national priorities.”

“The pandemic has likely raised additional interest for APT actors to gather information related to COVID-19. For example, actors may seek to obtain intelligence on national and international healthcare policy, or acquire sensitive data on COVID-19-related research,” the joint alert reads. 

By targeting pharmaceutical companies, medical research organizations, and universities, APT groups attempt to gather information “for their domestic research efforts into COVID-19-related medicine,” CISA and NCSC say. A number of incidents are currently being investigated. 

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“These organizations’ global reach and international supply chains increase exposure to malicious cyber actors. Actors view supply chains as a weak link that they can exploit to obtain access to better-protected targets. Many supply chain elements have also been affected by the shift to remote working and the new vulnerabilities that have resulted,” the alert reads. 

The threat actors are scanning the external websites of these organizations, looking for unpatched vulnerabilities they could exploit. Security flaws threat actors are known to have targeted include Citrix vulnerability CVE-2019-19781 and issues in virtual private network (VPN) products from Pulse Secure, Fortinet, and Palo Alto, CISA and NCSC warn. 

The two agencies are also investigating large-scale password spraying campaigns targeting healthcare entities in multiple countries, along with international healthcare organizations. Similar attacks have been used against government, emergency services, law enforcement, academia and research, financial, telecommunications, and retail organizations too. 

Such attacks, where a single, common password is used against multiple accounts before trying another password, allows attackers to remain undetected and is likely to succeed if used on a large number of accounts. Once an account has been compromised, the hackers can move to target other accounts within the organization. 

To stay protected, organizations are advised to adopt mitigations such as keeping VPNs, network infrastructure, and remote devices updated, employing multi-factor authentication, protecting the management interfaces of critical operational systems, using security monitoring, reviewing incident management processes, and using modern systems and software, which have better security built-in.

“CISA and NCSC continue to investigate activity linked to large-scale password spraying campaigns. APT actors will continue to exploit COVID-19 as they seek to answer additional intelligence questions relating to the pandemic,” the alert reads. 

Related: Criminals Quick to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis in Europe

Related: Nation-backed Hackers Tune Attacks to COVID-19 Fears: Google

Related: Authorities Warn of Escalating COVID-19-Themed Cyberattacks

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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