Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Hackers are targeting UK universities to steal coronavirus research, NCSC warns

State-sponsored hackers from Russia, Iran, and China are suspected.

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The UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned that the country's universities and scientific facilities are being subject to a wave of hacking attempts conducted by other countries in the quest for coronavirus research. 

According to the NCSC, as reported by The Guardian, state-sponsored threat actors are focusing on information related to the novel coronavirus including vaccination research -- an area of study in which scientists worldwide are working at breakneck speed to try and develop a way to contain and prevent COVID-19 infections. 

It is believed that state-sponsored groups hailing from Russia, Iran, and China have pivoted to this valuable data and are targeting British universities and research departments in increasing numbers. 

See also: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

NCSC has called the illegal activity "reprehensible," but added that overall, the rate of criminal and state-sponsored cyberattacks focusing on UK targets has remained "stable" during the outbreak.

Cyberattackers focused on espionage and the theft of valuable information, including customer data, banking records, and corporate intellectual property will often target datasets that have value either politically or financially. 

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a surge in vaccine research, and whatever country makes the breakthrough will likely financially benefit due to global demand. As a result, the coronavirus research area has become competitive -- and not just for scientists.

In April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK government was "throwing everything" at developing a COVID-19 vaccine, pledging over £40 million ($49m) to universities including the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, both of which are working to create a viable vaccine. 

The University of Oxford has begun human vaccine trials, and both Imperial College London and Bristol University are hoping to reach this milestone soon. Dozens more are also involved in coronavirus research. 

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If successful, mass distribution will be the next challenge. To this end, the University of Oxford has teamed up with UK-based global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca for large-scale vaccine manufacture and potential distribution. 

Oxford University is aware of the hacking attempts -- of which it is not thought any information breaches have, so far, taken place -- and a spokesperson told the publication that "Oxford University is working closely with the NCSC to ensure our COVID-19 research has the best possible cybersecurity and protection."

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Last week, the NCSC pivoted away from the COVID-19 outbreak to address a terminology issue flagged by a reader. The agency has decided to do away with "whitelist" and "blacklist" cybersecurity terms on the grounds that these phrases may have racial connotations. Instead, "allow list" and "deny list" will be employed on the agency's website in the future. 

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