Whitepaper: COVID-19=Cybersecurity Risk
Welcome to Life Online…the New Normal
As the COVID-19 crisis has required more and more Floridians to live their lives online, we have seen a significant increase in malicious cyber activity, including fraudulent apps, fake websites, e-scams, and phishing emails trying to exploit the crisis. All of us—businesses, schools, governments, and especially individuals—must be extra vigilant and highly suspicious of anything online that relates to COVID-19, either directly or indirectly, during this time.
More Life Online Means Increased Risk for All
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is creating a new reality for people across the nation. “Social distancing” is compelling organizations and individuals to transition to “life online” on an overwhelming scale.
Businesses and organizations that previously may have only dealt with remote work episodically are having to convert to a mostly remote workforce, in some cases, literally overnight. Restaurants are staying alive through delivery and take-out, often relying on food delivery apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash to maintain operations. Grocery delivery service sales are soaring. Colleges across the nation have moved classes to fully online instruction. Governments are holding virtual public hearings. Even our leisure activities have moved online with gaming platforms such as Steam reporting record numbers of users—in Steam’s case 19.5 million in one day.
COVID-19 has propelled such online practices from novelty to necessity, drastically accelerating the adoption of connected technologies in the process. This transition may become a cultural sea change for the nation, with these practices becoming a regular part of everyday life.
That means more people sharing personally identifiable information (PII)—such as social security numbers, birthdates, and credit card numbers—with more businesses than ever before, and more organizations handling and transmitting PII and intellectual property across a much more widely distributed network.
A Perfect Storm: The Implications for Cybersecurity
For cybercriminals, the attack surface—meaning all the devices and potential points of entry to our collective networks—has increased exponentially. Cybercrime was already considered a global crisis, with worldwide losses exceeding $1 trillion. This unprecedented leap in connectivity has coupled with public health fears and a lack of cybersecurity awareness to create a perfect storm.
Already, cybersecurity firms have tracked an explosion of phishing and other malicious cyber activities leveraging COVID-19 fears to manipulate users into unwittingly installing ransomware, spyware, and other types of malware to gain access to business, academic, and personal computers. Now, with so much commerce conducted virtually, ransomware poses a particularly increased threat. Cybercriminals do not need to disrupt an organization’s central network or on-premises equipment to wreak havoc. Individual attacks on remote employees could cause total system compromises for an organization.
Phishing emails entreat readers to open attachments and click on links that offer “safety measures” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Several Android apps posing as “coronavirus trackers” have proven to be fronts for spyware and ransomware. On social media, people are unknowingly sharing links to “coronavirus threat maps“ that, in actuality, are malicious websites. And it is not only opportunistic criminals taking advantage of the current state of vulnerability. Several threats have been traced to government-backed hacking groups in Russia, China, and North Korea, each attempting to capitalize on this opportunity to sow fear, create disruption, and pillage information.
How Cyber Florida at USF Is Helping
To combat this onslaught, it is critical that organizations implement sustainable remote
work policies, educate employees about their role in preventing cyberattacks, and provide employees with the appropriate tools to maintain a fundamental level of security as they access business systems remotely. See below for a list of recommended steps to improve cyber hygiene to enhance cybersecurity posture.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation and the overwhelming amount of information available, Cyber Florida at USF is undertaking several initiatives to help businesses, organizations, and citizens maintain a more secure digital presence as we weather this public health—and cybersecurity—crisis.
First, Cyber Florida is providing actionable threat advisories, both technical and non-technical, through our website, https://cyberflorida.org, and via opt-in email alerts. We will work with the State of Florida’s Chief Information Security Officer, other State University System of Florida (SUS) institutions, the Department of Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the Florida Information Sharing and Analysis Organization to identify urgent threats and disseminate cybersecurity threat advisories that are directly or indirectly related to COVID-19 and the cybersecurity risks of “life online.”
Second, Cyber Florida is re-aligning staff priorities toward researching, aggregating, and communicating “life online” best practices. To prevent “information overload,” Cyber Florida analysts will sift through the flood of information to highlight those practices that best serve to help mitigate the heightened threats that we face from this new, widespread reliance on connected technologies.
Third, we will connect our audience with cyber hygiene online training, not just for employees but also for citizens, especially those who are new to these technologies and may not be as familiar with good cyber hygiene practices. As one of the prevailing threats at the moment is coronavirus-related phishing scams, it is imperative that everyone takes steps to learn more about how phishing works and how to spot these malicious attempts.
All these efforts will be hosted online at https://cyberflorida.org.
Often, these moments of crisis can become incubators of innovation. We believe this is a watershed moment for the adoption of connected technologies, and Cyber Florida is committed to helping organizations and individuals navigate this new landscape safely and successfully.
Recommended steps to increase cyber hygiene for a higher level of cybersecurity:
- If you have not had to use your computer for a while, make sure all of your software,
including your operating system (like Windows), is up-to-date. Those updates typically correct security problems that the manufacturer discovers; you should also set software applications, such as Microsoft Office (that’s different than your operating system), to auto-update whenever possible. Windows users can learn how to turn on auto-updates here: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/12373/windows-update-faq and Mac users can find out here: https://support.apple.com/guide/mac-help/get-macosupdates-mchlpx1065/mac.
- Cybercriminals are sending fraudulent emails that claim to provide information about COVID-19 to trick people into clicking on links or downloading attachments that may be infected with a computer virus. Do NOT click on links or open attachments in unsolicited emails or emails from unknown senders, especially those related to COVID-19 that promise ‘new’ information on symptoms, testing and testing appointments, treatments, etc. Beware of innocent-looking coronavirus-related apps and social media posts, as well. Stick with your trusted sources of information.
- If you are working (or shopping) from the safety of your home, make sure you have updated your passwords and always use separate, ‘strong’ passwords for each of your accounts. A ‘strong’ password is one that contains at least 12 characters, does not use common words, is not easy to guess (no pets’ names, kids’ names or birthdays) and contains a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. Do not use the same password for multiple accounts. Consider using a Password Manager, an application that generates and remembers unique, strong passwords. A review of popular password manager applications is available here: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/best-password-manager-for-2020/.
- If your organization offers a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, use it for all transitions for a higher level of cybersecurity because VPNs are encrypted.
- If you are a business owner, and you are allowing your employees work from home during the COVID-19 crisis, consider buying and supplying them with VPN (Virtual Private Network) software, as an added layer of security. To learn more about VPNs, visit https://www.cnet.com/how-to/how-to-identify-a-good-vpn-3-features-to-look-out-for/.
- If you access the internet via your home WiFi, make sure it, too, is password-protected and if possible, encrypted.
For more information on safer online habits for working remotely, visit https://cyberflorida.org and check back frequently for more tips on how to stay safer online.
Cyber Florida, hosted by the University of South Florida, is charged by the State of Florida to promote cybersecurity education, research, and outreach.