UK accuses Russia of election interference and trying to steal Covid-19 vaccine

Britain says Russian-backed actors leaked state documents, as research bodies hacked

UK prime minister Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in the December 2019 election. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/EPA/UK parliament handout

UK prime minister Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in the December 2019 election. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/EPA/UK parliament handout

 

Hackers backed by the Russian state are trying to steal Covid-19 vaccine and treatment research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said on Thursday.

The news came after the UK said Russia had sought to interfere in the 2019 general election, by illicitly acquiring sensitive documents relating to a planned free-trade agreement with the United States and leaking them on social media.

Covid-19 vaccine

A co-ordinated statement from the UK, the United States and Canada attributed the attempts to steal research on a vaccine for Covid-19 to group APT29, also known as “Cozy Bear”, which they said was almost certainly operating as part of Russian intelligence services.

“We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” said NCSC director of operations, Paul Chichester.

The NCSC said in a statement the group’s attacks were ongoing and used a variety of tools and techniques, including spear-phishing and custom malware.

“APT29 is likely to continue to target organisations involved in Covid-19 vaccine research and development, as they seek to answer additional intelligence questions relating to the pandemic,” the NCSC statement said.

Britain and the United States said in May that networks of hackers were targeting national and international organisations responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. But such attacks have not previously been explicitly connected to the Russian state.

The Russian government-linked group Cozy Bear is widely suspected of hacking the Democratic Party ahead of the 2016 US election.

UK general election

Earlier on Thursday, British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said “It is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 general election.”

“Sensitive government documents relating to the UK-US free-trade agreement were illicitly acquired before the 2019 general election and disseminated online via the social-media platform Reddit,” he added.

A British government investigation found that when these documents gained little traction, further attempts were made to promote illicitly obtained material online ahead of the election, Mr Raab said.

Prime minister Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in the December 2019 election – beating Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn with the Conservative Party winning the biggest majority of seats since the 1987 win of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

“Whilst there is no evidence of a broad-spectrum Russian campaign against the general election, any attempt to interfere in our democratic processes is completely unacceptable,” Mr Raab said.

“The government reserves the right to respond with appropriate measures in the future,” he added.

Relations between London and Moscow fell to a post-Cold War low in 2018 when Britain blamed Moscow for trying to kill a former double agent with a Soviet-developed nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury.

Russia denied it was to blame but London identified agents from Russian military intelligence whom it said had travelled to England to poison former double agent Sergei Skripal. – Reuters

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