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COVID-19 Quarantine: A Unique Learning Opportunity for Defenders

Use these spare moments at home to master new skills that will help protect your organization and enhance your career.

During these unprecedented times, where social distancing is the required norm, cybercriminals around the world look for ways to capitalize on this crisis. From selling fake COVID-19 cures to phishing scams, criminals have ramped up their attacks. Hospitals, banks, government agencies — no one is immune to their attempts.

Every day, several thousand new suspicious domains are registered using COVID-19-related keywords, as reported by the handlers with the SANS Internet Storm Center. Additionally, malicious attackers are launching DNS-hijacking attacks against D-Link and Linksys routers, redirecting users to malicious sites advertising phony coronavirus apps. If users download the apps, their devices become infected with information-stealing malware. The attackers are using brute-force attacks to obtain routers' admin passwords.

Attacks aren't limited to COVID-19 though. Researchers with FireEye report that Chinese-based threat group APT41 has sharply ramped up its activities after a lull. Between January 20 and March 11 of this year, APT41 launched cyberattacks against more than 75 organizations around the world, exploiting flaws in Citrix NetScaler/ADC, Cisco routers, and Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central. These are just some of the malicious campaigns that organizations must contend with today.

Let's face it, pandemic or not, evil attackers have proven time and again that they aren't going to stop. Yes: Threats, system compromises, and even vulnerabilities ramp up during times of crises, but they will always be part of the world we live in. Even with travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders, defenders must continue to build their skill sets. Figuring out where to begin is often the hardest part.

With the extra time you're saving in your commute or focusing on at-home activities, you can turn some spare moments into precious skills for defending your organization and enhancing your career. The following tips will help get you started on a continuous path of learning.

Tip 1: Make a date with yourself. Carve out time every week, one or two nights, two to three hours each time, and commit to learning. Once you have a schedule in place, stick to it. A commitment to learning should be an ongoing investment in yourself over the span of your cybersecurity career.

Tip 2: Don't limit your learning to just theory. While knowledge certainly is power, hands-on experiences that allow you to build real-world technical skills are an absolute must to be successful in cybersecurity. Pick a technical problem and start working on it. Teach yourself how to code in Python. Challenge yourself in the area of the Internet of Things. Or find some other technical area you've always wanted to explore and start learning, hands-on.

Tip 3: Don't overlook the importance of the community. This is particularly important during this time of social distancing. Coming together and interacting in a virtual environment, while learning and improving cyber skills in the process, is one of the best ways to learn. Capture the flag (CTF) events are a fun way to learn how to thwart attacks — and they are based on the actual skills that people need to know. What's great about many CTF virtual events is people can play as individuals or part of a team, regardless of their location. CTF assets such as packet captures or malware files can also be saved and worked on at a later date for continuous learning.

To help individuals and organizations hone their cybersecurity skills, the team at SANS has been hard at work coming up with fresh content and interactive challenges. This content is available to the community at no charge. Running out of ideas? Check out these free resources available from SANS, which include biweekly Mini-NetWars events.

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