Phishing, deepfakes, and ransomware: How coronavirus-related cyberthreats will persist in 2021

The pandemic and 5G speed create wider attack capabilities. Phishing emails and other threats will continue to exploit COVID-19 and its side effects, says Check Point Research.

Reopening for business adapt to new normal in the novel Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Rear view of business owner wearing medical mask placing open sign "OPEN BUSINESS AS NEW NORMAL" on front door.

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The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the world on so many levels, and that includes the realm of cybercrime. Criminals have focused their efforts on malicious campaigns designed to exploit the virus and its ramifications. As COVID-19 continues to threaten the world, these types of attacks are expected to persist, according to cyber threat intelligence provider Check Point Research. In a report released Tuesday titled Securing the 'next normal, Check Point discussed its 2021 predictions in the face of the pandemic.

SEE: Coronavirus and its impact on the enterprise (TechRepublic Premium) 

Phishing campaigns. As COVID-19 continues to impact the world, a race is on to develop a vaccine. Promises of a vaccine have already been used in phishing campaigns this year, and that tactic will persist in 2021. Drug companies developing vaccines will be targets of malicious attacks orchestrated by criminals or nation-states aiming to exploit the situation.

Attacks on remote learners. In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, schools had to swiftly shift to e-learning environments for remote students. Educational facilities were hit by a 30% increase in weekly cyberattacks during August while they prepared for the new semester. As the school year continues into next year, such attacks will persist as a way to disrupt remote learning activities.

Double-extortion ransomware attacks. This year saw an increase in double-extortion ransomware in which attackers capture and decrypt sensitive data and then threaten to publicly expose it unless the ransom is paid. This type of threat will continue in 2021, with hospitals among the most vulnerable and targeted organizations.

"The COVID-19 pandemic derailed business-as-usual for virtually every organization, forcing them to set aside their existing business and strategic plans, and quickly pivot to delivering secure remote connectivity at massive scale for their workforces," Dr. Dorit Dor, VP of Products at Check Point, said in a press release. "Security teams also had to deal with escalating threats to their new cloud deployments, as hackers sought to take advantage of the pandemic's disruption: 71% of security professionals reported an increase in cyberthreats since lockdowns started."

With the shift to remote working, organizations had to pivot to digital transformations in which they increasingly relied on the cloud to run and scale their operations. But this move also expanded the areas open to cyberattack. Looking at 2021, Check Point Research sees attacks ramping up along two avenues.

SEE: Zero trust security: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Weaponized deepfakes. The technology used to create fake video and audio is now advanced enough to the point that it can be weaponized. Such phony content designed to fool people can be exploited to manipulate opinions, move stock prices, and trigger other severe actions. As one example that occurred earlier this year, a political group in Belgium unveiled a deepfake video of the Belgian prime minister giving a speech that linked COVID-19 to environmental damage. Many people believed that speech was real.

5G benefits and challenges. 5G offers a landscape in which critical devices are always on and connected at high speeds. As a few examples cited by Check Point, e-health devices could use 5G to collect medical data about users, connected car services can monitor the movements of customers, and smart city applications might gather data about residents. But without the proper protection, this always-on world could give criminals the opportunity to launch attacks and disrupt services.

"One of the few predictable things about cybersecurity is that threat actors will always seek to take advantage of major events or changes–such as COVID-19, or the introduction of 5G–for their own gain," Dor said. "To stay ahead of threats, organizations must be proactive and leave no part of their attack surface unprotected or unmonitored, or they risk becoming the next victim of sophisticated, targeted attacks."

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