In the world of cyber security, doomsday cyber breaches are a constant. Recall back in 2013 when the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano said,
"Our country will, at some point, face a major cyber event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy and the everyday functioning of our society."
Clearly, this hasn't come to fruition. After nearly two decades of false doomsday cyber threat predictions, many within the sector have taken a more pragmatic approach to cyber security forecasting. Tired of what is known in the industry as the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) factor negatively impacting business, many cyber experts focus on more immediate and localised threats and concerns. Yet this changed massively following the outbreak of coronavirus in March 2020.
COVID-19's Impact on Cyber Security
The security breach doomsday predictions are back, only this time it's called the "cyber pandemic". With so many people working from home, moving online and transferring higher quantities of data across different networks, cyber criminals are finding more avenues to exploit and breach. The founder and CEO of Check Point, an Israeli cyber security firm, Gil Shwed, has stated:
"More services moved online; companies removed barriers. We allowed developers to work just from within the company physically, so we could keep our intellectual property… In one day, we had to change all of that and allow people to access from home. This rapid change means hackers will find a way… The hackers can find a way to hack a personal computer of an employee and through them get into our Crown Jewels."
However, unlike the predictions of previous years, these are not unwarranted. United Nations Under-Secretary-General of Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, said at a meeting of the UN Security Council in May 2020 that there has been a 600% increase in malicious emails during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these attacks were targeted at the most vital parts of society, our healthcare and medical research sectors.
Many like Shwed also believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg. As the traditional view of the workplace changes, so too will our cyber security threat levels. As Shwed states:
"We need to protect ourselves against the cyber pandemic that is coming. We know it will happen, and we need to secure it."
Where is the Next Big Cyber Threat?
Throughout the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hardest-hit sector was healthcare. However, as of late hackers have expanded and continued to work through a network of viable weak points. Most recently, a new ransomware was disguised as a COVID-19 contact tracing app on Android devices in Canada. Researchers from ESET, a Slovak internet security company, stated that ransomware surfaced only several days after Health Canada announced the release of COVID Alert, which was set to first be tested in Ontario and then delivered nationwide.
Online shopping and e-commerce have also been victims of scammers and hackers. With more people shopping online as a result of quarantine restrictions, there has been an estimated £16 million lost to online shopping scammers and hackers in the UK alone. Most shoppers were purchasing everyday products such as footwear, game consoles and laptops only to never actually receive them. Many of the victims used community marketplaces such as eBay, Facebook, Gumtree and Depop.
The cyber pandemic threats have even amassed an international review as reports state that North Korean hackers planned a COVID-19 phishing campaign on June 2020, targeting six different countries and some five million users. In Singapore, one of the target countries, businesses would receive phishing email messages from a spoofed Ministry of Manpower account, supposedly offering additional payouts for employees under the government's COVID-19 support packages.
The Cyber Security Pandemic
Much like a biological one, a cyber pandemic has infection rates, infection prevention, and safety/best practices. As Check Point illustrates in their graph, the infection rate can be measured by the average number of hosts that one host infects with malware. One can try to mitigate these cyber threats with appropriate prevention strategies. For example, one of the best treatments is to couple your real-time prevention with a continuous process of quarantining (sandboxing, micro-segmentation), isolating (zero-trust, segregation), and tracing (threat intelligence, AI, SOC, posture management).
In addition to this, both a personal and business best practices plan should be put into place. Three key ways to practice this is through:
- Awareness: Think before you click
- Cyber Hygiene: Patches, compliance
- Asset Distancing: Network segmentation, multi-factor authentication
Investing in Cyber Security
While it is crucial to invest in cybersecurity regardless, now is the time for many businesses who have been holding off a security overhaul, to take action. Entire governments even realise the potential scale of exploitation from malicious hackers. The Australian government alone has recently invested a record-breaking $ 1.5 billion(AUD) into cyber security over the next decade to identify cyber threats, disrupt foreign cyber criminals and build new capabilities. While investing in a capable cyber team, strategy, and software is crucial, there are also other areas of one's business to consider that are overlooked.
The number one most overlooked threat to any business is its own staff. Helping your employees understand the importance of cyber threats and how they can help mitigate the risk is essential. Although your company may have the software in place, those working from home still have to use strong judgement when handling and sharing data. Some may not have the same level of protection on their home computers as they do their office ones. This can often lead to them to unknowingly visit malicious websites that their office networks may have blocked in the past. This is why building a personal firewall is essential for security. Coaching your team on how to ensure data protection on their personal devices can help prevent a potential customer data breach.
Three simple actions your business can take to ensure your team stays ahead of any hackers or threats are:
- Tell them what TO DO, rather than not to do
- Directing your team not to use software/tools that they would need to optimise their performance is counterproductive. Alternatively, explain the advantages, such as security and productivity, of using approved messaging, file-transfer, and document-management tools to do their jobs.
- Monitor High-Risk Groups
- If there are employees who spend a more significant number of their time dealing with sensitive data or transferring of information, they would likely require greater scrutiny in monitoring their daily activities.
- Keep Your Employees Up-To-Date
- Increasing your team's awareness of the latest phishing, vishing (voice phishing), and smishing (text phishing) campaigns can help prevent any data leaks or breaches. Ensure that your cyber security team sets out a comprehensive yet understandable roadmap to help your employees navigate potentially threatening content.
The Cyber Sky is Not Falling
While there is an influx of data breaches, leaks and scams impacting both personal and business devices, to claim a doomsday event is around the corner would be like a firefighter saying tomorrow we'll see the worst fire in history. It's a relative claim and highly unlikely. Working in cyber security means you're continually envisioning breaches and threats which may also indicate an overly dramatic forecast. Cyber security is all about prepping, upgrading, and staying ahead of threats, so it's only natural that doomsday predictions will arise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, in some respect, created a cyber pandemic in that there is a larger volume of breaches. However, we're still managing to keep massive amounts of data safe and scammers and hackers at bay. So long as teams stay informed and educated and bright minds keep updating safety and security measures, we're likely to survive whatever cyber threat is on the horizon.