How cybercrime has evolved since the pandemic hit

Opportunistic agility is running rampant among hackers and scammers.

How cybercrime has evolved since the pandemic hit
  • McAfee's user base has been seeing an average of 375 new threats per minute during the pandemic.
  • Once everyone got situated in their home offices and their company's security teams started taking the appropriate measures, how did the attackers adjust?
  • Ransomware on cloud servers, hijack attempts on IoT gadgets and business email compromise (BEC) attacks increased in volume as well as sophistication over the course of Q3 2020.

From a meta-historical perspective, crime waves have a tendency to rear their heads at times of societal chaos, and the sudden arrival of the coronavirus pandemic brought chaotic conditions that were particularly ripe for cybercrime.

In most companies, cybersecurity was a little-noticed casualty in the rush to transform digitally, support remote working, and keep customer-facing apps and services running as the new normal set in. Understandably, organizations prioritized keeping the lights on. Millions of people moved online, including individuals without much experience of working or shopping through the internet, and with equally poor cybersecurity awareness.

There's no debate about whether hacking and other malicious cyberattacks have increased. McAfee alone reports that malware grew 1,902 percent over the past four quarters, and the company's user base has been seeing an average of 375 new threats per minute during the pandemic. It's clear that cybercrime is flourishing in these conditions.

Credit: McAfee

But beyond the many reports that cybercrime has surged, there's been proportionately little talk about how it's changed. Once everyone got situated in their home offices and their company's security teams started taking the appropriate measures, how did the attackers adjust?

Here are four ways that cybercrime has visibly adapted to the changing conditions of 2020.

Deploying pandemic-related attack strategies

One of the notable ways that attacks were especially effective at the start of the pandemic was the manner in which they directly took advantage of the confusion caused by the situation. COVID-19 related phishing emails raised phishing attacks overall by 68 percent. There was also a marked uptick in business email compromise (BEC) attacks, where the criminal masquerades as a legitimate company and attempts to convince the victim that the coronavirus chaos forced them to change their banking details.

Cybercriminals have adjusted their targeting and tactics to follow the spread of COVID-19, with the spike beginning in Asia before shifting to Europe and the U.S. Now, as people are returning to work, phishing emails and malware have switched gears. Instead of claiming to educate you about the virus, they are disguised as guides to helping workers return safely to the office.

"What's clear is that hackers are hoping to capitalize on public fear," says Dr. Alex Tarter, Chief Cyber Consultant and CTO at Thales. "As a global population we have proactively sought out as much information as we can find to help inform our day-to-day lives, but also make us feel safe. Many of instances of cybercrime in the wake of COVID-19 have been designed with this fear in mind."

In this vein, malware, mobile malware and fileless malware have skyrocketed, using pandemic-related topics to play on people's fears and lure them to malicious URLs. Tarter estimates that half of all COVID-19-related domain names created since December 2019 were set up with the purpose of injecting malware, with many of these domains spoofing content from genuine websites in order to mask their intent.

Aiming at broader targets 

Another distinct trend is the shift to a broader attack surface. As work moved out of "on-premises" network environments, bad actors have followed us onto the cloud, so cloud-related breaches have increased. Protecting your server isn't sufficient; you need to connect all the dots and cover every connected device, because your cloud-connected printer is the backdoor to your entire organization.

Cybercriminals have long since woken up to the fact that IoT devices are often the weakest links in any system. IoT-focused attacks have grown in number and in impact, with a 46 percent rise in the number of attacks on smart homes, smart enterprises, and control systems that are connected to critical infrastructure.

Taking advantage of urgency and pressure 

Cybercriminals are taking advantage of the pressure that organizations are under to remain operational by expanding ransomware attacks, which doubled from 200,000 in Q1 2020 to 400,000 in Q2. Health centers are a popular target, because hackers know that they are overwhelmed with critical patients and can't afford the time it will take to resolve the attack, so they are more likely to give in and pay the ransom than struggle to combat and cure it.

A few weeks ago in Germany, a patient was unable to receive care when a ransomware attack on Düsseldorf University Hospital disrupted the emergency care unit, forcing them to transfer her to another hospital to receive critical care. The patient died during the journey, a cybercrime first.

Credit: Trend Micro

New ransomware families are emerging, using more sophisticated, phased attack strategies that are more difficult to rectify. Trend Micro has identified a 36 percent jump in new ransomware families, compared with the same period in 2019. Hackers know that IT and security teams are operating remotely, without access to their usual tools and processes and often without experience in dealing with an attack remotely, which handicaps their ability to resolve it quickly.

Exploiting remote work vulnerabilities 

Hackers have been quick to respond to the sudden rush to remote working. In the urgency of the moment, many companies implemented trusted VPN services for employees working from home, or set up a remote desktop, without configuring them properly, thereby opening the doors to hackers. In March, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) alerted businesses to elevated risks of VPN abuse.

A number of cloud tools are poorly protected. Zoom, for example, has become a lifeline for businesses and schools, but it has serious security vulnerabilities. It's no coincidence that individuals and educational organizations have been the targets of so many cyber attacks during the pandemic; they are (rightly) perceived as the most vulnerable.

Shadow IT use rose when employees sent home from the office had no choice but to use their personal laptops for sensitive work-related tasks, but these devices are rarely protected as well as an office computer.

Phishing attacks rose in part because many employees switched to work remotely almost overnight, without any training to independently recognize phishing scams. The average employee isn't equipped to deal with them, and at home there's no security team on hand to immediately respond to questions and defuse the threat.

Cybercrime adapted quickly to COVID-19 chaos

The coronavirus pandemic increased chaos in the world, and that presented a golden opportunity to malicious actors and hackers of all types. COVID-19 saw cybercrime shift to cynically exploit fears about the pandemic, take advantage of hasty shifts to remote working, attack overstretched critical infrastructure like health industries, and aim at broader targets across organizations. IT teams can't afford to fall behind as the ongoing struggle with cybercrime enters a new phase.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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