Distributed disruption: Coronavirus multiplies the risk of severe cyberattacks

The coronavirus pandemic is upending everything we know. As the tally of infected people grows by the hour, global healthcare, economic, political, and social systems are bending and breaking under the strain, and for much of the world there’s no end in sight. But amid this massive wave of disruption, one thing hasn’t changed: the eagerness of cybercriminals to capitalize on society’s misfortune and uncertainty to sabotage, cripple, mislead and steal.

coronavirus cyberattacks

New states of emergency are being declared every day as the virus keeps spreading. Confirmed cases have meanwhile been reported in more than 150 countries on six different continents. Nations and organizations everywhere are working around the clock to flatten the COVID-19 curve by imposing remote work policies, travel bans, and self-isolation.

In an unprecedented time like this, the reliance on the Internet is growing exponentially, turning the data highway into an even more indispensable channel for communication, information sharing, commerce, and everyday social interaction.

The Internet lifeline

To prevent their phone lines from being overwhelmed with information requests, governments around the globe are making digital the default communication stream and directing citizens to the official websites of their health ministries or public health agencies for COVID-19 updates. People are hitting Facebook and other social media like never before to keep up with and share the latest news. Telecom giant Vodafone has reported a 50% surge in European internet use, and Netflix has been requested to cut its bitrate in Europe for 30 days in order to prevent the Internet from collapsing.

In this context, a cyberattack that denies organizations or families access to their devices or data could be catastrophic. In a worst-case scenario, one or more cyberattacks could cause broad-based infrastructure shutdowns that take whole communities or cities offline and further hinder already overburdened healthcare providers, transportation systems and networks.

Germany, Italy and Spain are among the many countries and jurisdictions (like New York and California) that have implemented draconian measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Non-essential businesses have been made to close, and people to stay at home. Consequently, citizens are relying heavily on delivery services, which continue to operate. However, in Germany, cybercriminals recently unleashed a DDoS attack on one of the largest home delivery platforms, which affected customers and owners of more than 15,000 restaurants across the country. The criminals asked for two bitcoins (worth roughly $11,000) to stop the siege.

A few days earlier, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suffered a DDoS attack, assumed to have been launched by a hostile foreign actor, aimed at slowing down the agency’s services amid the government’s rollout of a response to coronavirus. The incident allegedly tried to overload HHS servers with millions of hits in just hours. The attack in the US occurred just two weeks after Australia’s federal cyber agency warned that Australian banks were in the crosshairs of extensive DDoS extortion campaigns.

Especially digitally-advanced industries with a heavy dependence on internet connectivity are more vulnerable than ever. Europol’s “Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2019” report notes that – besides the public sector and financial institutions – travel agents, Internet infrastructure, e-commerce, and online gaming services were lucrative targets for DDoS extortionists.

The perils of DDoS attacks on VPN servers

When it comes to remote work, VPN servers turn into bottlenecks. Keeping them secure and available is a number-one IT priority. Hackers can launch DDoS campaigns on VPN services and deplete their resources, knocking out the VPN server and limiting its availability. The implications are clear: Since the VPN server is the gateway to a company’s internal network, an outage can keep all employees working remotely from doing their job, effectively cutting off the entire organization from the outside world.

During an unprecedented time of peak traffic, the risk of a DDoS attack is growing exponentially. If the utilization of the available bandwidth is very high, it does not take much to cause an outage. In fact, even a tiny attack can become the last nail in the coffin. For instance, a VPN server or firewall can be taken down by a TCP blend attack with an attack volume as low as 1 Mbps. SSL-based VPNs are just as vulnerable to an SSL flood attack, as are web servers.

Making matters worse, many organizations either use in-house hardware appliances or rely on their Internet carrier to ward off incoming attacks. These deployment models tend to run with low levels of automation, requiring human intervention of some sort to operate. If someone or something throws a digital wrench into the system, fixing the problem remotely will be an uphill battle if there are few or no IT staff on-site. Since these deployment models typically require 10 or even 20 minutes before they even detect an incident, any attack will almost inevitably cause a major outage.

APIs and web apps broaden the attack surface

The Application Programming Interface (API) is a key part of every cloud service or web app. APIs enable service integration and interoperability – by, for instance, enabling any given app to process a payment from PayPal or a client’s credit account in order to complete the transaction. But they can also turn into single point of failure that expose companies to a wide variety of risks and vulnerabilities. When a business-critical application or API is compromised, it knocks out all the operations related to the business and initiates a potentially devastating chain reaction.

Guarding against or managing application layer attacks – such as an HTTP/HTTPS flood – is especially difficult, as the malicious traffic is hard to distinguish from regular traffic. Layer-7 attacks are in that sense highly effective, as they require little bandwidth to create a blackout.

Cybercrime exploits anxiety

Cybercriminals take advantage of human foibles to break through systemic defenses. In a crisis, especially if prolonged, IT people run the risk of making mistakes they would not have made otherwise. Attackers might cut off system administrators from their own servers while they run virtually rampant through the company network, steal proprietary data, or ingest ransomware. Any downtime can alienate customers, erode trust and cause negative publicity, even anxiety.

Organizations should remain vigilant and prepare for attacks in advance, before they occur, as this sort of incident can be very difficult to respond to once the attack unfolds. Companies should also continue to opt for cloud services to take advantage of scalability, and higher bandwidth to maintain redundancy. Most importantly, during times of remote work and self-isolation, radical security automation is more important than ever in order to ensure an instant response and get human error out of the equation.

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