Tech

How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research

The headlines aren’t always kind to the National Security Agency, a spy agency that operates almost entirely in the shadows. But a year ago, the NSA launched its new Cybersecurity Directorate, which in the past year has emerged as one of the more visible divisions of the spy agency.

At its core, the directorate focuses on defending and securing critical national security systems that the government uses for its sensitive and classified communications. But the directorate has become best known for sharing some of the more emerging, large-scale cyber threats from foreign hackers. In the past year the directorate has warned against attacks targeting secure boot features in most modern computers, and doxxed a malware operation linked to Russian intelligence. By going public, NSA aims to make it harder for foreign hackers to reuse their tools and techniques, while helping to defend critical systems at home.

But six months after the directorate started its work, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and large swathes of the world — and the U.S. — went into lockdown, prompting hackers to shift gears and change tactics.

“The threat landscape has changed,” Anne Neuberger, NSA’s director of cybersecurity, told TechCrunch at Disrupt 2020. “We’ve moved to telework, we move to new infrastructure, and we’ve watched cyber adversaries move to take advantage of that as well,” she said.

Publicly, the NSA advised on which videoconferencing and collaboration software was secure, and warned about the risks associated with virtual private networks, of which usage boomed after lockdowns began.

But behind the scenes, the NSA is working with federal partners to help protect the efforts to produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, a feat that the U.S. government called Operation Warp Speed. News of NSA’s involvement in the operation was first reported by Cyberscoop. As the world races to develop a working COVID-19 vaccine, which experts say is the only long-term way to end the pandemic, NSA and its U.K. and Canadian partners went public with another Russian intelligence operation aimed at targeting COVID-19 research.

“We’re part of a partnership across the U.S. government, we each have different roles,” said Neuberger. “The role we play as part of ‘Team America for Cyber’ is working to understand foreign actors, who are they, who are seeking to steal COVID-19 vaccine information — or more importantly, disrupt vaccine information or shake confidence in a given vaccine.”

Neuberger said that protecting the pharma companies developing a vaccine is just one part of the massive supply chain operation that goes into getting a vaccine out to millions of Americans. Ensuring the cybersecurity of the government agencies tasked with approving a vaccine is also a top priority.

Here are more takeaways from the talk, and you can watch the interview in full below:

Why TikTok is a national security threat

TikTok is just days away from an app store ban, after the Trump administration earlier this year accused the Chinese-owned company of posing a threat to national security. But the government has been less than forthcoming about what specific risks the video sharing app poses, only alleging that the app could be compelled to spy for China. Beijing has long been accused of cyberattacks against the U.S., including the massive breach of classified government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Neuberger said that the “scope and scale” of TikTok’s app’s data collection makes it easier for Chinese spies to answer “all kinds of different intelligence questions” on U.S. nationals. Neuberger conceded that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google also collect large amounts of user data. But that there are “greater concerns on how [China] in particular could use all that information collected against populations other than its own,” she said.

NSA is privately disclosing security bugs to companies

The NSA is trying to be more open about the vulnerabilities it finds and discloses, Neuberger said. She told TechCrunch that the agency has shared a “number” of vulnerabilities with private companies this year, but “those companies did not want to give attribution.”

One exception was earlier this year when Microsoft confirmed NSA had found and privately reported a major cryptographic flaw in Windows 10, which could have allowed hackers to run malware masquerading as a legitimate file. The bug was so dangerous that NSA reported the vulnerability to Microsoft, which patched the bug.

Only two years earlier, the spy agency was criticized for finding and using a Windows vulnerability to conduct surveillance instead of alerting Microsoft to the flaw. The exploit was later leaked and was used to infect thousands of computers with the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

As a spy agency, NSA exploits flaws and vulnerabilities in software to gather intelligence on the enemy. It has to run through a process called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which allows the government to retain bugs that it can use for spying.

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