Hackers Breach Biochemical Systems of Oxford University Lab Studying the Coronavirus

Last Updated: March 10, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic is novel in more than one way. Firstly, it introduced a strain of virus hitherto unknown to the world. The virus has proved almost uncontainable despite the efforts of various bodies. In addition, it has precipitated new challenges for global criminal justice systems.

New types of crimes originate every other day, and in other situations, more sophisticated means of carrying out existing crimes also have evolved. One of such new genres of crimes is the attack on institutions studying the coronavirus. The latest is the attack on a facility located at Oxford University.

The Oxford University Attack by Cybercriminals

According to an Interpol assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on cybercrimes, there has been a significant target shift. Cybercriminals no longer focus on individuals and small businesses. Rather, they are paying more attention to major corporations and even governmental agencies.

The reason for this is not far-fetched. Businesses and companies are increasingly turning to remote systems in order to remain operational. With this comes unique challenges and vulnerabilities which are exploited by these criminals. Crucial data of customers are targeted and stolen, intending to be sold or used for committing other crimes.

According to the report, between January and April 2020, 48 000 malicious URLs, 737 incidents related to malware, and more than 907 000 spam messages were reported.

Starting the list of institutions that have been recently attacked is Oxford University London.

The Oxford University Lab studying COVID-19 came under attack in February 2021. The specific division that was attacked is known as Structural Biology (also known as Strubi).

The Strubi labs are mostly used for studying molecular and biological science. Since the pandemic broke out, the lab has been used to research the virus and consider candidates for vaccination. The labs have recorded some measure of success in the past. For instance, it has published research into RNA strands and viruses. The lab is also involved in detecting how COVID-19 cells work and could potentially be important in deciding future candidates of the coronavirus vaccines.

Forbes, alerted by the Chief technology officer of Hold Security Alex Holden, reported that the cybercriminals had access to many systems, including machines used to prepare biochemical samples. These samples are used in coronavirus research.

The University has since responded, admitting that the attack occurred at the Strubi labs, but however, stated that it was an isolated event and further that no compromise occurred. The University claimed that it had identified the breach’s source and was working to rectify the situation. Even more so, it stated that the attack did not impact any clinical research.

Apart from Oxford University, several other educational institutions have also experienced coronavirus-related cyber attacks. For instance, in May of 2020, the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) reported planned attacks on British universities. The threat actors were touted to be from Russia, Iran, and China.

Similarly, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) was attacked in December 2020. Unlike the Oxford situation, this attack was successful. The criminals had access to data relating to research carried out regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and so on. It leaked this data to the public, causing widespread panic.

Speculated Perpetrators of the Attack

The Oxford University attack was previously thought to have occurred at the behest of Russian and North Korean hackers. However, current evidence suggests the contrary. The attackers are most likely an independent group of criminals without affiliations either to Russia and North Korea.

According to security expert Alex Holden, the criminals appear highly trained and sophisticated. He stated that the team might have also been responsible for attacks on some Brazilian universities. The group, he added, also are touted to be behind the attack on the analytics company Dun & Bradstreet. 

Similarly, the motivations of the Oxford attack appear to be unique too. Thus, while international espionage has been touted to cause the attacks on other institutions, the attack on Oxford University seems financially motivated. Perhaps, the criminals worked with the assumption that a successfully hacked Oxford would be motivated to pay a ransom.

Possible Effects of a Successful Attack

There is no overemphasizing that the effects of a successful cyberattack targeted at coronavirus research institutions could actually be disastrous. Some of the possible fallouts of a possible successful attack include:

1. Theft of Data

The data of the subjects of the coronavirus research could be compromised if security is breached. This would amount to a breach of the terms of the agreement between the participants and the research/educational institutions. This is especially as those who agree to the research and trials do so on a strict privacy agreement. Furthermore, unauthorized access to such data could further compromise the security of the participants. Criminals could sell the data to third parties such as advert companies. In extreme cases, the data can be used to carry out further attacks.

2. Sabotaged Research

The outcome of the research could be tainted if the research is breached. If the purification technology is compromised, for instance, the result of the research will thus be unreliable.

3. Public Alarm and Distrust

A successful attack will lower public confidence in the research process. It could also induce a false alarm about the disease. Given that there is already heightened fear and conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus pandemic, further erosion of public confidence would be catastrophic.

Conclusion

It is definitely worrying the spate of COVID-19-related cyberattacks on educational institutions researching the coronavirus. What is even more alarming is the fact that these institutions are of high profile. Hence, they are expected to have improved security, impervious to attacks of such a nature. Greater actions must be taken before the situation escalates even further.

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