Months into the COVID-19 pandemic,countless large and small businesses across the globe are operating in survival mode, focused on pushing through the storm.
While companies concentrate on getting through each day and week, one at a time, we would be careless not to encourage them to scrutinize the potential bad actors — specifically, nation-states — that are looking to capitalize on the weaknesses created or exposed by the pandemic.
According to a security vendor Radware, by the end of 2019, over a quarter of companies had experienced a foreign government/nation-state attack. In 2018, 19% of organizations believed they were attacked by a nation-state. That figure increased to 27% in 2019. Before COVID-19, there was already good reason to believe that figure would increase in 2020. It's gone from "if" to "when" to "who." And when it comes to "who," the answer has changed since the reckoning of COVID-19.
While financial institutions, government organizations, and companies working in the political stratosphere have remained popular targets for cyber breaches, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also warned organizations researching COVID-19 of likely targeting and network compromise by the People's Republic of China. They stated that healthcare, pharmaceutical, and research sectors working on COVID-19 response are the prime targets of this activity and encouraged the industries to take the necessary steps to protect their systems.
CISOs must now look at their businesses through the eyes of nation-state bad actors and see where they fit into the larger picture during and after the recovery stages of the pandemic. This means assessing weaknesses in cybersecurity and addressing them immediately — specifically, old and unpatched weaknesses. In a public disclosure, CISA and the FBI stated that foreign cyber actors continue to exploit publicly known — and often dated — software vulnerabilities against broad target sets, including public and private sector organizations.
Speaking of long-known threats, ThreatConnect researchers unmasked Chinese hacking group Naikon Group five years ago, pinpointing the unit of the People's Liberation Army that was allegedly sponsoring it. The Naikon group was key to China's spying efforts in the South China Sea, targeting government agencies from the Philippines to Vietnam, and recently reappeared. Analysts with Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point said that Naikon has been far from idle in recent months, trying to hack familiar government organizations in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Bad actors are well aware of the industries being hit the hardest by the pandemic, and have increasingly used coronavirus as an entry point for a cyber breach. The Department of Justice recently reported that the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center has received and reviewed more than 3,600 complaints related to COVID-19 scams, many of which operated from websites that advertised fake vaccines and cures, operated fraudulent charity drives, delivered malware, or hosted various other types of scams. In some cases, the fraudulent sites purported to be run by or affiliated with public health organizations or agencies. As misinformation continues to circulate over the course of the pandemic, nation-state bad actors will capitalize on these kinds of vulnerabilities.
In light of the pandemic, CISOs are now tasked with securing an unprecedented number of remote users, quickly locating and patching holes, and in some cases postponing security projects due to complete business model changes and refinancing. Combining these pressures with the usual tasks of managing a mountain of threat intelligence coming from a wide variety of feeds and tickets coming up tens, hundreds, or even thousands of times a day, in addition to the imminent threat of pandemic-incited cyberattacks makes for rigorous and tedious work with little reward and a lot of risk.
Are CISOs aware of these imminent nation-state risks? We think so. In fact, we think they are losing sleep at night thinking about the potential of a bad situation becoming worse due to a cyber threat.
Now more than ever, it is time for enterprises to back up their security teams and address the murky waters of nation-state threats head on.