US Health and Human Services suffered a cyberattack on its computer systems Sunday night.


James Martin/CNET

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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. Bloomberg reported the hackers attempted to sow confusion by sparking rumors of a national quarantine.  The National Security Council sent a tweet late Sunday in part to halt those rumors, the sources said.

The government agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The attack will likely further complicate the government’s response to the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, as it spreads across the country. As states, counties and cities announce school closures, event cancellations and other social distancing efforts, the White House has also called on tech companies to help stop the spread of misinformation.

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.


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