Cybersecurity post-COVID 19: More internet means more threats, stay alert folks!

When supported by adequate digital awareness campaigns and more crackdowns on cybercrimes, increased internet usage will help more people embrace technology and better understand the risks, bringing us closer to unleashing the true potential of a digital world.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 23-04-2020 10:23 IST | Created: 02-04-2020 23:16 IST
Cybersecurity post-COVID 19: More internet means more threats, stay alert folks!
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"Will coronavirus break the internet?" reads the headlines of prominent media platforms as coronavirus forces billions of people inside their homes and in front of screens either due to work or boredom.

Although the internet traffic has significantly increased, it's pretty much clear that the internet won't be "breaking" anytime soon because the majority of the uptick in demand is due to people accessing the internet for work through their individual connections. These people would be accessing the internet from offices if things were normal so Internet Service Providers (ISPs) clearly provide enough bandwidth to handle the load. The increased number of individual mobile connections, however, could slightly lower the speeds. Fixed broadband connections would still fare better despite the increased demand, companies have claimed.

With that out of the way, the bigger picture is that the panic around such questions shows just how much the world is dependent on the internet and terms like the Fear of Being Offline (FOBO) and Nomophobia (the fear of being without a mobile phone) are a reality.

As strict lockdowns and social distancing advisories came into effect, countries asked people to avoid going out of their homes and avoid government offices. Further increasing the dependency on the internet, more and more essential government work is going online and many government employees are being allowed to work from home, in a first-ever move for many countries.

On Tuesday morning, the United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired the first-ever digital cabinet as all ministers continue working from home during the lockdown in the country. India, which has imposed the biggest-ever nationwide lockdown, has also allowed around 15,00,000 government employees to work-from-home to ensure social distancing.

As people self-isolate in their homes, the government has found a support system in previously underemphasized e-commerce companies. Official advisories all across the world are promoting e-commerce companies and encouraging people to buy from them to ensure that the supply of essential goods remains intact with minimum and trained human contact.

Governments and international organizations embrace technology in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and it's clear that the outbreak and lockdowns will be a turning point in the future of digitalization. The race towards a connected world was already in full swing and the outbreak has further highlighted the potential of the internet in tackling problems of the 21st century. However, the question arises whether the rapid democratization of technology is outpacing efforts to secure the digitalization?

Experts have long argued that cybersecurity isn't getting enough attention and as important as increasing the internet penetration is, it must be done in a secure way, or else, existing fundamental rights of people would be compromised.

In 2017, a Frenchwoman asked online dating app Tinder to provide her all the information that they had about her. The information was an 800-page document that contained her Facebook likes and dislikes, the demographics of men she had expressed interest in, and all the conversations she had had with her 870 matching contacts since 2013. The report highlighted the challenge of data protection and the fact that if a single app has this much information on users, the data collected by whole ecosystems like that of Google and Apple could essentially predict the behavior of users and manipulate their choices.

The outrage over privacy and data protection in recent years has although helped the cybersecurity situation and has driven some remarkable legislations, experts argue that efforts to make the technology safer are still lagging behind the pace of distribution of technology.

Coronavirus is exposing cybersecurity risks

During the lockdowns, internet traffic has skyrocketed as everything from classes to meetings has gone online. Vodafone, which operates in more than 65 countries, has "already seen data traffic increase by 50% in some markets," while the story of other ISPs is no different.

The jump in work-from-home culture has also increased the usage of collaborative working platforms manifold. Video conferencing app Zoom recently became the most-downloaded app on Google Play Store with over 50 million downloads as everyone from students, private sector employees and government officials turned to it to stay connected remotely. Microsoft Teams collaboration and communication service has also seen a more than 700% jump in monthly users since the lockdown in Italy.

Coincidently, the UK's first digital cabinet was also held through Zoom and while sharing the picture of the "cabinet", PM Johnson didn't hide the ID number that is used to join video conferences. Such mistakes have happened earlier as well and many prominent people have accidentally shared sensitive information on the internet in the past. But considering that 'not sharing sensitive information publically' is one of the most widely spread personal cybersecurity tips, the mishap highlights how lightly these tips and advisories are taken, voicing the dire need of change in mindset towards cybersecurity.

The problems with Zoom, however, isn't just limited to the negligence of users, New York Attorney General Letitia James recently sent the company a letter expressing concern about the security practices followed by the company and the company also faces a class-action lawsuit for allegedly sharing users' data with companies like Facebook without those individuals' consent.

Children are also vulnerable to cybercrimes and increased unmonitored internet usage by them due to school closures could pose a risk to their safety. UNESCO estimates that more than 1.5 billion children are affected by the school closures ordered due to coronavirus outbreak. Education for these students have either shifted online or have stopped, but in both cases, this gives children more reasons and time to spend online, leaving them prey to cybersex trafficking.

"Spending more time online may heighten the risk of grooming, predators trying to meet children and an increase of self-generated images, as well as cyberbullying," according to Rachel Harvey, an advisor for UNICEF. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also issued a statement warning about the increased risk of online abuse of children due to school closures.

The dependency on the internet has increased manifolds due to the crisis. Many governments are disseminating information via digital means. Many companies are allowing their employees to work-from-home, in a less secure environment compared to office setups. The increased dependency, although has its benefits, it also multiplies the cost of failure.

In the past few days, the US Health and Human Services Department has suffered a cyber-attack but there was "no degradation" in the functioning of the networks, elite hackers have unsuccessfully tried to break into the World Health Organization (WHO) in early March, thousands of fraud portals have been also created over the past few weeks trying to eat into the share of donations made to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But these are still not among the worst-case scenarios.

Healthcare, traffic systems, and other official machinery in many countries can't function without the internet today and a large-scale successful cyber-attack could prove to be devastating, bringing whole cities to a halt.

Cybersecurity in post-coronavirus future

Real-time chatbots, online dashboards, and responsive FAQs are some of the steps being taken by governments and companies in arguably the largest campaign against fake news being undertaken by the whole world simultaneously. Countries have long acknowledged the increasing problem of fake news but actions against it have largely been localized, making it hard to clamp down on maneuvers executed from multiple countries, often for political motives. A mass-scale campaign against fake news on coronavirus could prove the effectiveness of multilateral action against the menace and could drive coordinated action in the future.

Schools are also going online to make sure education isn't disrupted by the nationwide school closures in over 165 countries. While the digital divide poses a problem to digital education, these services are expected to gain even more traction over the coming years supported by the experience and lessons from the sudden school closures prompted by coronavirus outbreak. But digital education gives children all the more reason to spend hours on the internet, making them vulnerable to cybercriminals.

Many schools and the providers of digital education services are already circulating personal cybersecurity tips for both children and parents, and the trend is expected to continue even after the outbreak because of its cost-efficiency. But more widespread awareness campaigns from governments could also be expected as the demand for digital education increases.

Such response and campaigns would also be supported by international organizations and advocates of cybersecurity, making it a turning point when the world finally gains the upper hand in the fight against cybercriminals as well as fake news.

Coronavirus outbreak has essentially pushed the governments to see the benefits of e-governance and better-connected services. The governments that couldn't allow employees in its non-essential departments to work-from-home would also try to adopt a framework that supports it. An era of e-governance with easily accessible and efficiently delivered public services could be ushered by the side-effects of this outbreak.

A digital world is undoubtedly the future and is not the enemy here, the problem lies with the refusal to acknowledge increasing cybersecurity threats. And as the world gets more digitally connected, the rewards for cybercriminals multiply, giving them all the more reason to carry out cyberattacks and thus increasing the risk for normal users. But when supported by adequate digital awareness campaigns and more crackdowns on cybercrimes, increased internet usage will help more people embrace technology and better understand the risks, bringing us closer to unleashing the true potential of a digital world.

Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) is an initiative of VisionRI and aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of the global development sector and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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