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Hackers target US health agency during coronavirus crisis

The US Health and Human Services Department was attacked over the weekend, according to multiple reports, as coronavirus continues to spread.

 US Health and Human Services suffered a cyberattack on its computer systems Sunday night.
James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

As government staff and health care workers scramble to respond to the widening pandemic of the coronavirus  the US Health and Human Services Department discovered hackers attacked its systems Sunday night. Bloomberg, which reported the attack citing anonymous sources, said the hackers seemed focused on slowing the agency's response to the crisis, but "didn't do so in any meaningful way."

The hackers don't appear to have taken any data. Instead, The Washington Post and CyberScoop reported the attack was intended to slow the agency's systems by overloading them with traffic, often known as a DDoS or distributed denial of service attack.

HHS said in a statement that it saw a "significant increase in activity" Sunday evening, but that it was still "fully operational." 

The Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, also known as CISA, said it's already taken steps to prepare government systems as more people work remotely. "We're confident that the measures we've all put into place are sufficient, and we will stay on the lookout for and defend against malicious activity," said CISA spokeswoman Sara Sendek.

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The attack underscores that while the government is focused on responding to the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes, cybersecurity is still a key issue. So far, most of the public attention put on tech over the past couple of weeks has come from the White House, which called on Silicon Valley to help stop the spread of misinformation. Google has also constructed a government website to help people who believe they may be ill.

Meanwhile, states, counties and cities have been focused on school closures, event cancellations and other social distancing efforts,

For hackers, there's a lot of potential to wreak havoc. Government and health officials are sometimes issuing new guidance multiple times per day, and they've been more strict about various social measures. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control said gatherings of more than 50 people should be halted for the next two months. Meanwhile, markets have plunged amid concerns about how the crisis will hit the economy.

Before the coronavirus crisis, security experts warned that hackers and propagandists in Russia and other countries were already ramping up efforts to disrupt the 2020 US presidential election. Companies such as Microsoft have pitched in to help make sure electronic voting machines are protected.

Now, they have to worry about hackers taking advantage of an international pandemic as well.