The weakest link in cybersecurity, it's often said, is humans. Individuals are increasingly the targets of two types of attacks:

  1. Social engineering seeks to circumvent an existing process and exposes an individual’s lack of security awareness.
  2. Logical engineering targets a system or technology and exposes obsolete/vulnerable software/misconfigurations.

The new normal of remote working has put the focus firmly on cybersecurity, trust and protecting data. COVID-19 has forced the hand of businesses in several sectors by requiring them to confront their digital preparedness in tackling cyber threats head on.

Changes in the work environment

In the pre COVID-19 era, most employees worked from offices, where the local area network (LAN) as well as the desktops/laptops were adequately secured. Sophisticated technologies could protect against cyber-attacks that originated primarily from the internet and targeted the enterprise network. Enterprise protection technologies secure the employees’ systems from targeted phishing campaigns that lure them into clicking on unknown links and attachments. Offices also offer an additional layer of security in the sense that employees can check in with their colleague in the neighbouring cubicle or their manager and alert the IT security team if they notice any suspicious emails or links.

In the post COVID-19 era, only support staff personnel or those who need direct system/hardware access e.g.: research labs, direct console, specific printing machines in banking environment, etc., are working from office. The rest of the workforce is operating from home, and connected to more vulnerable networks when compared to the ones at the office.

Security challenges of work from home

While organisations are offering secure virtual private network (VPN) access to employees, the first point of interface for the employee’s laptop or desktop is typically a broadband network, mobile hotspot or shared wireless network. Employees are connecting via home wireless routers, which have rudimentary security for encryption of traffic. Some of these devices have default passwords for administration that are left unchanged by the home user. There are several security challenges associated with connecting to home networks, including:

  1. These wireless routers are a shared asset with the family and/or neighbours. The data traffic flow is not controlled, and covers a wide range of activities including personal email and educational needs.

  2. Employees in the age group of 22 to 28 in cities lean towards shared accommodation to address travel and costs of living. They usually have flat mates who also are working from home and have weak protection on their laptops.

  3. A corporate user on the home network can access unfiltered internet, personal email and drives unlike in the past, where the user was governed by the IT security team and is now a COVID-19 specific phishing theme target.

  4. A home user clicking on an unsuspecting link or redirected to a malicious website could end up loading malicious codes into the browser of the corporate user’s laptop which gets executed unsuspectingly in the background and proceeds to compromise the enterprise network.

  5. This malicious code could also extract valid corporate credentials when the home user logs into the enterprise portal or VPN via keylogging or tab-nabbing, thereby compromising the security of the entire organisation.

  6. There are also heightened risks of IP theft and leakages, especially for work-from-home users operating for organisations in research and development.

Local scenario

Currently the main phishing attacks going on in Malta have evolved to target citizens with emails, SMSs and voice calls impersonating personnel from local operators and even government entities with either a request of information to have the parcel delivered (and then requesting a small charge which effectively opens up your credit card to withdraw anything they find) or to inform you of a tax refund which requires your bank account details and also having access to your funds.

These phishing attacks are evolving all the time by trying to find opportunities in disruption or change. A new wave of attacks may soon be coming related to COVID-19 certificates, vaccination registration or swab test appointments which would obviously confuse people more and possibly be more effective due to current situation.

Another attack vector would probably be to impersonate support personnel (also known as Social Engineering) as they used to do with Microsoft Support as they realise that more children and adults are working from home and might be experiencing IT support issues. Additionally, as mentioned in recent local news, these attacks are not only over electronic devices but could be done in person (such as pretending to be a police officer) to either gain financial benefits or personal information.

On another note, ransomware and extortion are also on the rise with emails containing links to malicious files which once downloaded and opened (could be executables or embedded as macros in Office documents) will trigger the exfiltration of files from the computer systems and then encrypting of all files and file shares it manages to access. If the ransom is not paid the files are deleted and the exfiltrated files made public.

Guarding against cyberattacks

An organisation’s IT security team could put in place additional focus on detection technologies for traffic originating from the home user. Additionally, analytical technologies like ‘user behaviour’ needs could be adopted at the earliest. It would be beneficial to incorporate and adopt enhanced tele-worker policies for the organisation as well as the teleworker.

The corporate user’s current security awareness levels are limited to only password sharing/complexity, clean desktop and locked cabinets. In the wake of COVID-19 based attacks, the home user needs to be informed on accounts, sessions, remote maintenance, software updates, security of home network routers and integration of home-based printers, gaming consoles and IOT devices, among other aspects.

It would be advisable to educate the home user on incident understanding and handling thereby supporting the IT teams with a time sensitive response and enhancing the capability of recovery in the wake of any unprecedented attack. Organisations need to conduct Red Team exercises that simulate attacks via social engineering and compromise technology to understand the organisation’s capability to detect, respond and recover in time.

In conclusion

In the post-COVID-19 world, cyber attackers are increasingly seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in an organisation’s security infrastructure that the shift to remote working has exposed. 

It is time for cybersecurity leaders to re-visit their security measures and focus on deploying new processes and technologies to fortify their digital architecture going forward.