UK spy agency accuses hostile states of snooping on vaccine supply chains

'More than 200 incidents of coronavirus-related cyber hacking' seen since the pandemic began

M93M4C GCHQ  An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: Ministry of Defence
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Hostile states are attempting to hack into Covid-19 vaccination supply routes, the head of Britain’s top spy agency said on Monday.

Without specifying which countries, but understood to be referring to China, Russia and potentially Iran, Jeremy Fleming, the director of the Government Communications Headquarters, made it clear that foreign governments were also attempting to snoop on vaccine production.

There have been more than 200 incidents since the pandemic began of countries or criminals trying to break into coronavirus-related research, said Mr Fleming.

“We have seen serious criminals right up to states seeking to take advantage of the situation interested in the production of the vaccine and they are now very interested in the supply chains around the vaccine,” Mr Fleming told a Chatham House think-tank webinar.

Britain is one of the leading Covid research countries, home to Oxford University and Imperial College London, making it a target for cyber hackers.

“Wherever you get those advantages you also get adversaries, who are seeking to do us harm,” he said. Terrorists, criminals and hostile states were all seeking to take advantage, he added. “What we've seen during this latest pandemic is an acceleration of that, with about 60 incidents a month. In the last nine months 200 of those incidents have had some sort of coronavirus-related angle.”

He was joined at the conference on “digital competition” by Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, commander of UK Strategic Command, who stated that cyberspace was “not only the most contested domain that we operate in, but it's one where there is a state of permanent potential confrontation”.

The senior army officer, who served on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said this was “a very deliberate strategy” by Britain’s enemies, including hostile states. “They think of pursuing their own strategic advantage as a continuum, starting with operations and cyberspace at one end, a nuclear war at the other,” he said. Cyberspace provides them with an area to “pursue strategic advantage”, he added.

To counteract the threats, Britain’s National Cyber Force has been formed to disrupt criminals, extremists and terrorists, “imposing cost to them on their actions,” Mr Fleming said.

Singling out China, the GCHQ boss said cyber conflict with the powerful country depended very much on its behaviour. “We would clearly like to have a constructive positive relationship with China, not least one of trade, but some of the actions that China has taken make us wary. We need to insulate ourselves against some of those threats.”

He also made an indirect reference to how China appears to have remained untouched by Covid and benefited from it economically. "If anyone had any doubts about the rise of China then what we've seen over the last nine months is the extent to which China is making so much more of the world's weather nowadays, if I may put it that way," he said.

He made it clear that Britain would not tolerate offensive actions when its vital security interests were at stake. He said: “We want to have the sort of relationship where we both understand what is not acceptable but also where they are sure that the UK will take action.”