Cyber Crimes in the Time of COVID-19

It has been four months now since the COVID-19 has internationalised itself. By April 20, there have been more than 2.4 million confirmed cases and over 165,000 deaths. Consequently, when the world was locking itself down to break the chain reaction of the virus, we the homo sapiens, were buying guns and ammunition. However, one thing is constant in any of the actions – element of uncertainty and chaos. This means that if the current situation persists over a long duration of time, the chaos will render people fighting against each other over basic necessities of life. Likewise, the more the uncertainty prevails, the more it will give leeway to those who bring chaos in cyberspace. During this crisis, cyber-criminal activities have risen.

As the world has prematurely moved towards digitalisation as a result of physical distancing and isolation, it has provided an opportunistic void for cyber threats to evolve while taking the advantage of online behaviours.

As the world has prematurely moved towards digitalisation as a result of physical distancing and isolation, it has provided an opportunistic void for cyber threats to evolve while taking the advantage of online behaviours. The Interpol, has provided a “Cyber Safety Checklist” in order to mitigate the threats emerging from cyberspace.

Figure 1  Cyber Safety Checklist (Source: Interpol)

Experts have reported that in the midst of the current situation, almost everyone has gone for online platforms. Zoom being on the top of it, has no end to end encryption. Moreover, cyber criminals have found a technique through which they could join any active Zoom meeting. Zoom is taken as an apt example here for the fact that it is the most widely used technological service during the lockdown for remote work activities.

That in the midst of the current situation, almost everyone has gone for online platforms. Zoom being on the top of it, has no end to end encryption.

Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups are camouflaging their cyber operations as information about the pandemic. Such is the state of cyber capitalism at the moment, which accounts for threats like phishing attacks under the garb of COVID-19, distribution of malware and new domain names’ registrations among others. Without discussing the technicalities of these threats, it is pertinent to understand that anything related to information about COVID-19 online could possibly contain virus that could compromise your online activities – including an attachment, a PDF file or a link. The solution to avoid falling into the trap of disinformation or cybercrimes is by regularly keeping yourself aware of guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and national health ministries or departments. With reduction in traditional criminal activities due to physical distancing, the activities of cyber criminals have become more visible and striking. Figure 2 shows an information graph from a report of Recorded Future which details about domain registrations.

Figure 2 Graph showing the registrations of COVID-19-realted domains per day in 2020 (Source: Recorded Future)

From psychological perspective, it is also pertinent to understand the behaviours and motivations of these cyber criminals. In these times of uncertainty and chaos, it is very easy to link oneself with a reputed health organisation while at the same time initiating attacks and asking for information dissemination, deposits for vaccine and downloading latest updates. All of these tactics come under the realm of social engineering while exploiting public policy spaces. Therefore, the cyber criminals prey on the emotion of fear in such times. This, however, brings us to the other side of dilemma which is being faced by us all – psychological stress. The attackers have become more sophisticated by hacking into the vulnerability created by the overall psychological stress of COVID-19. The stress drives us to click whatever information we see on the cyberspace ultimately resulting into compromising our online security.

The attackers have become more sophisticated by hacking into the vulnerability created by the overall psychological stress of COVID-19.

The world has experienced the psychological torments of terrorism. Similar is being expected of COVID-19. This lockdown is considered as the world’s biggest psychological experiment that would result in an epidemic of burnouts and absenteeism related to stress factor in this year and times to come, if it persists. The former is the mental exhaustion as a result of a prolonged stress – in this case due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the latter would be a habitual pattern of absence – in this case due to the lockdowns and work from home practices.

This lockdown is considered as the world’s biggest psychological experiment that would result in an epidemic of burnouts and absenteeism related to stress factor in this year and times to come, if it persists.

Staggeringly, taking the case of Pakistan, a cybersecurity company that goes by the name “Rewterz” reveals the data dumping of 115 million Pakistani mobile users. The leaked personal data is available for sale on the dark web against extravagant prices, as much as US$ 2.1 million. Meanwhile, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has advised general public not to use public Wi-Fi connections.

Rewterz” reveals the data dumping of 115 million Pakistani mobile users. The leaked personal data is available for sale on the dark web against extravagant prices, as much as US$ 2.1 million.

To conclude, only one thing is certain in this global episode of the viral attack, which is that the element of uncertainty would persist till the time chaos manifests itself from more sophisticated realm of cyber towards streets and cities in tandem with how much life line COVID-19 has. If the pandemic ends, the world will revert back to its original working for better or for worse. But if the pandemic persists over a long time, the current state of affairs would lead towards intrastate civil unrests – not for territorial gains or self-determination, but for food, water and shelter – the basic human needs. This brings us back to the current scenario where we must initiate certain steps on war footings.

  • While maintaining social distancing, maintain every kind of reserves for the worst conditions.
  • While in quarantine, adopt and act upon the contours of minimalism in every human enterprise.
  • While going digital, abreast yourself with skills other than traditional education and secure yourself with latest strategies to counter cyber threats and criminals.
Syed Ali Hadi

Syed Ali Hadi

Syed Ali Hadi is currently pursuing his M.Phil in Strategic Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad. He is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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