Britain's top spy agency sees workload spike amid Covid-19 vaccine hunt

GCHQ director points to big rise in attempted hacking of leading UK science labs

M93M4C GCHQ  An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: Ministry of Defence

The coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on the workload of Britain’s top intelligence agency, its director said yesterday.

With the race on to find a vaccine against Covid-19 there was a significant increase in other nations trying to “steal” or “disrupt” information from the British science laboratories leading the research, said Jeremy Fleming, the director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Mr Fleming said his force of 10,000 cyber and intelligence experts had “stepped in” to protect sustained cyber assaults on medical facilities.

“The reality is that we are seeing attacks on the health infrastructure. Whether it’s states or criminals, they are going after things that are sensitive to us in this regard. It’s a high priority for us to protect the health sector and particularly the race to find a vaccine.”

Britain is one of the leading countries developing a Covid-19 vaccine with Oxford University and Imperial College London at the forefront, along with Sinovac in China. Whoever develops it first will reap billions from global sales, making research information highly valuable.

Director of Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) Jeremy Fleming attends an event to mark the centenary of GCHQ, the UK's Intelligence, Security and Cyber Agency, at Watergate House in London on February 14, 2019. - Watergate House was the GCHQ's first home as the 'Government Code and Cypher School' and a former top secret location. Today, as one of Britain's three intelligence agencies, GCHQ tackles the most serious cyber, terrorist, criminal, and state threats. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP)

While Mr Fleming did not directly accuse China of attempting to hack the system, he labelled it an “intelligence adversary”.

“At the moment our health and biosecurity are much greater prominence even than a few months ago. The steps we take to protect our health system, to protect our vaccine development, to protect those involved in this vital service. It is of course a reality that there are others interested in stealing these secrets or otherwise disrupting our efforts in those areas.”

In the past Russia has also been accused of multiple attempts to hack into British and other Western systems.

Cyber-criminals have spotted opportunities from the pandemic

Mr Fleming believed that the pandemic was also increasing the challenges security services faced. “It is the case that Covid is changing the balance of threats we are seeing and will change how we have to respond in the future. It’s a massive moment for ourselves and everyone else.”

As a result of the hacking attacks, experts from GCHQ had “moved in to help support health security to protect everyone’s critical information,” the former MI5 officer said in a special interview at the Cheltenham Science Festival. The surveillance agency was also providing advice on the National Health Service’s contact tracing app to ensure it is “as secure as possible” along with “cutting-edge architecture” for its protection.

Asked about the threat from China he said: “China’s rise and position in the world is a fact of life. We see China as an intelligence adversary, we see them as an economic partner, we work with them in some areas and compete with them in others. We also call out their behaviour when we don’t see them aligned with our values.”

He added that the surveillance and encryption agency was working closely with allies in the Middle East.

GCHQ was also helping police after the virus had led to a sharp increase in the number of criminals carrying out coronavirus cybercrimes, including the sale of face masks and protective equipment.

“Cyber-criminals have spotted opportunities from the pandemic,” Mr Fleming said. “We have seen them using Covid-related tactics to lure people into harm.”

With the social distancing now required, a large number of GCHQ agents were now working from home, although he made clear not on top secret issues. “It’s been quite seamless to work from home. Culturally it was a big thing for us but it has been welcomed by a lot of people.”

However, Mr Fleming reiterated that not all espionage activities could be done from the dining room table. “At our heart we have very sensitive capabilities and information and we will always have an aspect that cannot be done from home.”