On Tuesday, the South Korean intelligence agency reported about the recent attempt by North Korean cyber forces to hack into US drugmaker, Pfizer’s system. During a closed-door meeting with the country’s lawmakers, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that its northern neighbor has been trying to steal the pharmaceutical company’s COVID-19 vaccine data. Pfizer, in tie-up with Germany-based firm BioNTech, co-developed, the first Covid-19 vaccine, which gained approval for emergency use from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Ha Tae-Keung, a member of parliament’s intelligence committee, told the reporters that as per the NIS document shown to him, “North Korea stole Pfizer (vaccine information) and attempted to steal (technology) from South Korean vaccine and pharmaceutical firms.” Though Ha’s claims were contradicted by the NIS as the agency said it “reported general incidences of hacking attempts” to obtain coronavirus vaccine information and denied providing any names of pharmaceutical makers, including Pfizer.
“The National Intelligence Service did not say that Pfizer was hacked by North Korea in a Q and A session of the briefing yesterday for the National Assembly Intelligence Committee,” the NIS statement read.
Ha stood by his claims and said that NIS’s mention of Pfizer “was so clear that I didn’t even ask about that verbally”. While sharing a copy of his notes online, which included Pfizer and “vaccine data hacking”, Ha said, “I wouldn’t have been able to take notes about Pfizer if that wasn’t mentioned in the document.” He added that probably the country’s intelligence agency was trying to avoid any direct confrontation with North Korea by putting out a lot of details.
Though it was not the first time North Korea’s name was dragged in a cyber attack to gather information regarding Covid-19 vaccines, despite invalidating the claims at the start of the pandemic that the country has been hit by a coronavirus. In November, Microsoft claimed that Kim Jong Un’s nation was trying to crack into vaccine makers’ systems, by at times “masquerading as World Health Organisation representatives.” The company added that most of the attempts failed.
A month later, Reuters reported that the hackers from North Korea were suspected to be involved in cyberattacks against British coronavirus vaccine developer AstraZeneca, by disguising themselves as recruiters and approaching the pharmaceutical company’s staff with fake job offers, to extract vaccine research-related information.
The country seemed to have been using its cyber skills to get ahead as a vaccine developer, after using the same tactic to gather millions of funds for its nuclear development programs. The United Nations accused the country of stealing virtual assets worth $316.4 million dollars between 2019 and November 2020, to raise ample funds to back its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.