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By Clare O’Gara
Fri | May 15, 2020 | 9:21 AM PDT

Sometimes we forget that hackers are human beings. Especially when the things they attack could harm the world.

Like this latest cyberattack on a supercomputer that was working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hacked supercomputer denies access to COVID-19 scientists

ARCHER is a U.K.-based supercomputer from EPPC systems, and an invaluable resource for researchers studying global issues—including one group that was working on a coronavirus vaccine.

Which is why the recent hack on the system was so discouraging:

"On May 11, attackers exploited ARCHER's login nodes, forcing the EPCC Systems team to disable access to the system. Officials started investigating and informed the community that they will not be able to 'to log in or to submit new jobs.'"

The result was particularly bad for scientists, and may indicate an emerging trend in cyberattacks on academics:

"Yesterday, the admin posted updates on the website, stating that 'we now believe this to be a major issue across the academic community as several computers have been compromised in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. We have been working with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and Cray/HPE in order to better understand the position and plan effective remedies.'

'We are currently investigating a number of incidents in which other states are targeting pharmaceutical companies, medical-research organizations, and universities, looking for intelligence and sensitive data, including research on the virus.'"

Fortunately, it looks like no research or client and personal data was impacted during the attack.

Risk of working from home: did remote work cause the ARCHER cyberattack?

Some other interesting pieces of data might be worth noting amid the ARCHER supercomputer situation.

According to EPCC, employees were working remotely:

"In common with most UK organisations, EPCC staff are working from home now. We are endeavouring to continue to engage with all of our projects and partners as close as possible to normal in this exceptional situation.

To adhere to government restrictions during the pandemic, we have adopted a slightly reduced, condensed working pattern. However, the ACF will be open and functioning as normal."

EPCC's switch to remote work is unsurprising given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19.

But that fact still poses questions about the security of organizations while their employees work from home.

Just last year, EPCC announced that its operations received a new cybersecurity certification:

"We are delighted to announce our success in passing and retaining ISO 9001 quality certification and ISO 27001 information security certification for the delivery of National HPC Services and Data Services.

EPCC uses best practice to ensure that the data for which it is responsible is processed, managed and stored securely for the benefit of local, national and international researchers."

Was this a nation-state effort to steal COVID-19 related data?

It seems counterproductive to hack a supercomputer working on a coronavirus vaccine. After all, we're all human, and we all want to protect ourselves and others from this illness.

But this universal demand for a vaccine also creates a competition problem.

Data on COVID-19 is extremely valuable. And in some cases, whole nations might be interested in obtaining it. SecureWorld recently covered an FBI investigation into China's potential role in attempting to steal coronavirus research:

"The FBI is investigating the targeting and compromise of U.S.  organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by PRC affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors.

These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research.

The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of  secure, effective, and efficient treatment options."

Related podcast: cyberattack on the WHO during COVID-19 response

Listen to our podcast interview with the man who discovered a cyberattack against the World Health Organization. Was it a nation-state attack?