British eavesdropping agency GCHQ is actively hacking Russian attempts to undermine coronavirus vaccine efforts, according to The Times.
Citing government press officers anonymous sources, the newspaper reported this morning that the agency was "taking down hostile state-linked [propaganda] content and disrupting the operations of the cyberactors [sic] responsible for it."
The offensive cyber campaign is said to be using similar tools to those deployed against Islamic State in 2018 to take its propaganda outlets offline.
Tactics deployed against the Russia-backed actors are said to include "encrypting" the operators' data, mildly suggestive of ransomware – albeit without the ransom.
Some weeks ago a Russian misinformation campaign was brought to light, again by The Times, aiming to sow distrust of the safety and efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by drug company AstraZeneca and Oxford University in the UK. The campaign reportedly claimed that because AZD1222 uses a replication-deficient chimpanzee viral vector, it could "turn people into monkeys". Subtle.
Publicly acknowledged use of offensive cyber capabilities (government-sponsored hacking) by the UK are rare. Two years ago GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming told the Cyber UK conference: "For well over a decade, starting in the conflict in Afghanistan, GCHQ has pioneered the development and use of offensive cyber techniques. And by that I mean taking action online that has direct real world impact."
A year after that, then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech in Glasgow confirming that Britain has a National Offensive Cyber Programme, which he described as being a "joint mission between GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence."
A GCHQ spokeswoman told The Register the agency would neither confirm nor deny the Times story.
The GCHQ attacks almost coincided with today's announcement by pharmaceutical company Pfizer that it may have a working vaccine for COVID-19, a finding that has flooded global news networks and sent the stock markets into a tizzy:
Equity markets rise sharply as Pfizer says vaccine found to be over 90% effective. FTSE 100 now up over 3% pic.twitter.com/dVbC4uPbSb— Richard Fletcher (@fletcherr) November 9, 2020
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Office tweeted about the country's competing Sputnik vaccine, promising Twitter users "only latest and verified first-hand info."
Russia's London embassy issued a statement in October, when the nation's disinformation campaign first came to light, saying: "The suggestion that the Russian State may conduct any kind of propaganda against the AstraZeneca vaccine is itself an example of disinformation. It is obviously aimed at discrediting Russia's efforts in combating the pandemic, including the good cooperation we have established with the UK in this field."
Public statements from Russian officials should mostly be taken with a pinch of salt; they often accuse others of doing what they themselves are guilty of.
Conspiracy loons in the weirder corners of the internet have leapt on the hacking story as proof of everything from a government campaign to silence alternative, legitimate points of view through to 1970s TV presenters revealing culinary preferences that include diminutive domestic mammals. Probably. ®