2020 was a disaster, but the pandemic put security in the spotlight

Let’s preface this year’s predictions by acknowledging and admitting how hilariously wrong we were when this time last year we said that 2020 “showed promise.”

In fairness (almost) nobody saw a pandemic coming.

With 2020 wrapping up, much of the security headaches exposed by the pandemic will linger into the new year.

The pandemic is, and remains, a global disaster of epic proportions that’s forced billions of people into lockdown, left economies in tatters with companies (including startups) struggling to stay afloat. The mass shifting of people working from home brought security challenges with it, like how to protect your workforce when employees are working outside the security perimeter of their offices. But it’s forced us to find and solve solutions to some of the most complex challenges, like pulling off a secure election and securing the supply chain for the vaccines that will bring our lives back to some semblance of normality.

With 2020 wrapping up, much of the security headaches exposed by the pandemic will linger into the new year. This is what to expect.

Working from home has given hackers new avenues for attacks

The sudden lockdowns in March drove millions to work from home. But hackers quickly found new and interesting ways to target big companies by targeting the employees themselves. VPNs were a big target because of outstanding vulnerabilities that many companies didn’t bother to fix. Bugs in enterprise software left corporate networks open to attack. The flood of personal devices logging onto the network — and the influx of malware with it — introduced fresh havoc.

Sophos says that this mass decentralizing of the workforce has turned us all into our own IT departments. We have to patch our own computers, install security updates, and there’s no IT just down the hallway to ask if that’s a phishing email.

Companies are having to adjust to the cybersecurity challenges, since working from home is probably here to stay. Managed service providers, or outsourced IT departments, have a “huge opportunity to benefit from the work-from-home shift,” said Grayson Milbourne, security intelligence director at cybersecurity firm Webroot.

Ransomware has become more targeted and more difficult to escape

File-encrypting malware, or ransomware, is getting craftier and sneakier. Where traditional ransomware would encrypt and hold a victim’s files hostage in exchange for a ransom payout, the newer and more advanced strains first steal a victim’s files, encrypt the network and then threaten to publish the stolen files if the ransom isn’t paid.

This data-stealing ransomware makes escaping an attack far more difficult because a victim can’t just restore their systems from a backup (if there is one). CrowdStrike’s chief technology officer Michael Sentonas calls this new wave of ransomware “double extortion” because victims are forced to respond to the data breach as well.

The healthcare sector is under the closest guard because of the pandemic. Despite promises from some (but not all) ransomware groups that hospitals would not be deliberately targeted during the pandemic, medical practices were far from immune. 2020 saw several high profile attacks. A ransomware attack at Universal Health Services, one of the largest healthcare providers in the U.S., caused widespread disruption to its systems. Just last month U.S. Fertility confirmed a ransomware attack on its network.

These high-profile incidents are becoming more common because hackers are targeting their victims very carefully. These hyperfocused attacks require a lot more skill and effort but improve the hackers’ odds of landing a larger ransom — in some cases earning the hackers millions of dollars from a single attack.

“This coming year, these sophisticated cyberattacks will put enormous stress on the availability of services — in everything from rerouted healthcare services impacting patient care, to availability of online and mobile banking and finance platforms,” said Sentonas.

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