11.20.20

Peters Slams Administration for Lack of Action Against Foreign Adversaries Over Coronavirus Vaccine Research Hacks

Preventing Future Attacks Against Health Care Providers’ and Vaccine Researchers’ Information Systems is Critical to Protecting Americans’ Health

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, slammed the Trump Administration for their lack of action against foreign adversaries, including Russia, China, and North Korea, that have sponsored cyber-attacks against American hospitals and research institutions in an effort to steal information related to development of Coronavirus vaccines. Peters letter comes after President Trump fired senior cybersecurity official Christopher Krebs, and announcements from two pharmaceutical companies that Coronavirus vaccines under development could be highly effective.

“I am angered by these government sponsored cyber-attacks and your lack of action to deter them over the past months.  And now you’ve decided to fire the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the Deputy Director of CISA, and the CISA Assistant Director for cybersecurity. CISA, with the Department of Defense, is responsible for the cybersecurity of your own Operation Warp Speed to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and you’ve removed its top three cybersecurity leaders,” wrote Peters.

Peters continued: “I urge you, again, to send a strong message to any foreign government attempting to hack into our medical institutions that this behavior is unacceptable. The Administration should use the tools at its disposal, including the threat of sanctions, to deter future attacks against research institutions. In the event that any foreign government directly threatens the lives of Americans through attacks on medical facilities, other Department of Defense capabilities should be considered to make it clear that there will be consequences for these actions.”

By attacking health care providers’ and vaccine researchers’ information systems, foreign adversaries put the health and safety of Americans at risk. After evidence of cyber-attacks sponsored by the Chinese government arose in May, Peters pressed the Administration to take swift action to hold the Chinese government accountable.

As Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a member of the bipartisan Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, Peters has led efforts to bolster our nation’s cybersecurity defenses. The Senate unanimously approved Peters’ bills to develop and retain highly-skilled cybersecurity professionals in the federal workforce and strengthen cybersecurity coordination between DHS and state and local governments. Peters also introduced bipartisan legislation to improve access to cybersecurity resources and training for small businesses, support K-12 schools with the resources they need to bolster their cybersecurity and ensure that America is prepared to respond to and recover in the event of a major cyber-attack.

Peters has also worked to address America’s overreliance on foreign adversaries, such as China, for critical drugs, personal protective equipment and medical supplies needed to address the Coronavirus pandemic. In a 2019 report, Peters raised concerns and recommended actions to address vulnerabilities in our medical supply chain, including shortages for prescription drugs, masks, gloves, and vaccine delivery devices, which are compounded by the United States’ dependence on foreign manufacturers.

Text of Peters’ letter is copied below and available here:

Mr. President,

On May 12, 2020, I sent you a letter highlighting concerns around reported Chinese government sponsored attacks against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), hospitals, research laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies with the goal of stealing COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research. In that letter, I urged you to take action to stop these attacks.

On July 16, 2020, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S., released an advisory stating that the Russian Government has also been targeting our health care system, again in search of COVID-19 vaccine development and testing data. On November 13, Microsoft published an alert warning of hacking groups connected to the Russian and North Korean governments that targeted COVID-19 vaccine and treatment researchers in Canada, France, India, South Korea, and the United States.  According to the alert, some of their attacks were successful.

I am angered by these government sponsored cyber-attacks and your lack of action to deter them over the past months.  And now you’ve decided to fire the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the Deputy Director of CISA, and the CISA Assistant Director for Cybersecurity. CISA, with the Department of Defense, is responsible for the cybersecurity of your own Operation Warp Speed to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and you’ve removed its top three cybersecurity leaders. While I have full confidence in the dedicated workforce at CISA to continue to execute their mission despite your actions, the removal of these individuals invites attacks from our adversaries based on a perception of instability, rather than prevent them.

This is not about keeping COVID-19 vaccine research for Americans alone, it is about ensuring that the institutions performing this research are not experiencing intrusions onto their systems that could disrupt or destroy this research. I again urge you to take necessary actions to mitigate this threat. These hackers put the lives of Americans at risk. 

In my previous letter, I called on you to take action to deter adversary activity, and while I applaud the joint advisory issued over the summer and recent Department of Justice indictments, it is clear these attacks have continued and that your actions thus far are insufficient to deter our adversaries. Not only have you not taken adequate action to stop Chinese government aggression, but your inaction has invited additional attackers. This is completely unacceptable.

As the Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I have called for improving the security of state, local, and private sector institutions that are researching COVID-19. I have made clear that in this time of crisis, the federal government should prioritize cybersecurity support to safeguard our health care sector.

I urge you, again, to send a strong message to any foreign government attempting to hack into our medical institutions that this behavior is unacceptable. The Administration should use the tools at its disposal, including the threat of sanctions, to deter future attacks against research institutions. In the event that any foreign government directly threatens the lives of Americans through attacks on medical facilities, other Department of Defense capabilities should be considered to make it clear that there will be consequences for these actions.

Given the continuation of attacks throughout the year, and your lack of response to my previous letter, I reiterate my request for you to take all necessary measures to protect medical institutions working to save lives by developing treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19. These measures should include:

  • Directing CISA and CYBERCOM to continue to prioritize cybersecurity support to hospitals and medical research institutions, including providing risk and vulnerability assessments and sharing cyber threat intelligence information with those organizations.

  • Utilizing all levers of national power – diplomatic, military, economic, and law enforcement – to deter adversary governments from any attacks against U.S. health care system and make clear that any attack on our medical systems will be treated as a significant threat to our country.

  • Increasing cybersecurity funding as part of future COVID-19 funding requests to Congress for hospitals, medical and research institutions.

  • Directing Secretary Azar to prioritize HHS information technology appropriations towards improvements in cybersecurity, and encouraging the Secretary to work with GAO and the HHS Inspector General to improve its cybersecurity posture.

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