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Cybersecurity in the age of Coronavirus and beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ‘new normal’ has reconstructed business structures and the mode of work in India, and around the world. Companies have had to adapt to ensure social distancing in their operations and allow employees to work from home. A large number of activities, operations and events had to be moved online and curated virtually. Organizations and people alike have been dealing with multiple challenges of maintaining smooth operations and balancing priorities. However, a major challenge is and will continue to be ‘cybersecurity’.

The number of coronavirus-related cyberattacks, involving phishing emails, jumped by 260% during the lockdown period – as per a recent report. There has been a substantial increase in the use of techniques like ransomware, data-harvesting malware, online scams and others. People and processes are more prone to cybercrime whilst away from the secured office environments. While most of them are grappling with the situation, cybercriminals are seeing it as an opportunity.

What is the scale of this threat?

In March, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ (PM CARES Fund) was setup. Within a few hours, half a dozen similar-sounding websites were found – with names like “PM-care” and others. Cybercriminals cashed on the opportunity and started to mislead people into transferring funds to these fake platforms.

Kerala recorded the highest number of cyberattacks during the Covid-19 lockdown, with around 2,000 attacks during the period. This was followed by Punjab with 207 attacks and Tamil Nadu, with 184 attacks – according to a latest K7 Computing’s Cyber Threat Report. The sudden rise only indicates that scamsters and cybercriminals have been exploiting the widespread panic around coronavirus. Not just at a corporate level, but also at an individual level.

Certain malicious web domains have words like ‘covid’ and ‘corona’ in them. This clearly misleads people and acts like click-bait. Some phishing emails promise sale of cures or key supplies. COVID-19 themed phishing e-mails look informative and lure people into malicious activities or scams. Critical infrastructure and hospitals are facing ransomware attacks too. There has been a large-scale increase in ‘password spraying’ campaigns against healthcare bodies and medical research organizations.

Why should cybersecurity be taken seriously?

Firstly, the ‘work-from-home’ and online-schooling currently prevalent due to the lockdown measures have made internet a necessity. Dependency on digital communication has multiplied. A planned cyber-attack has the potential to deprive a large number of people and organizations of access to their devices and data. It can even harm online infrastructure facilities of entire communities – and corrupt or steal data.

Time and again, we have seen how cybercriminals can devise new ways to exploit users and technology to access data, networks and passwords. They often capitalize on popular topics and trends to lead users into unsafe online behaviour. Currently, the popular topic happens to be the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, in this prolonged situation of lockdown and rising anxiety, people tend to make mistakes they would not make otherwise. And cybercriminals are looking to exploit their fear and uncertainty.

What can be done to safeguard ourselves?

With the increasing threats and risks, information security teams can no longer rely only on existing practices and capabilities. As companies and consumers look to improve the security of their networks, the demand for cybersecurity applications is on the rise. With personal devices increasingly being used for company work, they need to be firmly secured.

A strong endpoint security application such as anti-malware and firewalls on all devices we use is crucial. The most commonly implemented protection against attacks is two-factor authentication (2FA). However, there are instances when more than two factors are used – called multifactor authentication (MFA). MFA can be used to access networks and critical applications in a time like this. Use of passwords that are difficult to guess and activation of 2FA/ MFA is essential to secure one’s virtual resources.

However, the onus is on the user to ensure that other factors used for authentication are in safe custody. Avoid clicking on attachments when received from unknown sources. Even when received from known sources, it is recommended to scan the downloads by an anti-malware application, before proceeding. To be safe and secure in the cyberworld, a healthy dose of suspicion and avoiding blind faith are two tenets that need to be scrupulously followed always. Individuals need to be armed with information about the latest and most common attacks, how to leverage the tools provided for protection against them, and how to abide by the guidelines to ensure safety and security.

Cybersecurity and safety can be easily overshadowed by other challenges or overlooked due to other priorities, but security considerations should never be ignored. The effectiveness of tough cybersecurity infrastructure in preventing a successful attack has been seen in the past. It is imperative that we get back to the basics in securing our networks and data by taking stronger measures. This is non-negotiable even after we get past this pandemic.

By Aiyappan Pillai, IEEE Senior Member

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