North Korean hackers reportedly targeting firms developing COVID-19 vaccine

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Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korean hackers have targeted six pharmaceutical companies developing a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.K., the U.S., and South Korea to steal sensitive information and sell it to the highest bidder, according to the Wall Street Journal citing  people familiar with the matter,

Cybersecurity officials found that North Korean operatives conducting the attacks are part of a group called “Kimsuky,” which specializes in stealing intelligence secrets from the U.S. and its closest allies in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea.

The targeted companies include U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson and Novavax as well as South Korean companies Genexine, Shin Poong Pharmaceutical, and Celltrion, to name a few examples.

U.K. pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, which has developed a vaccine with 90% effectiveness, was also targeted according to Reuters. Currently, it is unknown whether North Korea gained access to useful information in its hacking attempts. 

Both Shin Poong and Celltrion have confirmed they were indeed attacked, but zero damage has been detected. One Celltrion spokesman has said the frequency of attacks increased in the second half of 2020.

This type of nefarious behavior is far from new for North Korea, which has garnered a reputation as a leading player in global hacking efforts, including the 2014 Sony Pictures Hack and the 2017 ransomware attack on WannaCry. The U.S. Department of Justice has brought charges against a North Korean operative for the aforementioned attacks.

In addition to the DOJ, the U.S. State Department made it clear that the North Korean cyberattacks are serious concerns that should be monitored closely.

“It is vital for governments, network defenders, and the public to stay vigilant and to work together to mitigate the cyber threat posed by North Korea,” the State Department said.

Experts on North Korea have said that even if North Kora gained access to proprietary information related to a vaccine, the regime lacks the capacity to do anything effective with it due to the country’s lack of robust healthcare infrastructure.

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