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Experts warn: Pandemic is 'perfect time' for foreign hackers to strike

'Nation states play the long game -- they have their list of targets and wait for the right moment.'

Hacker looks for backdoors

Companies are increasingly vulnerable to cyber intrusions due to various disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Photo: Eclipse Images via Getty Images

Cybersecurity experts fear that the chaos caused by coronavirus provides an opportunity that hackers will take advantage of — and there's already evidence that foreign adversaries, including Russia and China, are launching coronavirus-related cyberattacks.

Companies are increasingly vulnerable to cyber intrusions due to various disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Many are making sweeping changes to their networks, asking most or all employees to work from home, and may have to deal with critical IT workers getting sick or having to juggle work with taking care of kids. It all adds up to an opportunity that the most sophisticated hackers have been waiting for, said Nico Fischbach, global CTO of cybersecurity firm Forcepoint.

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"Nation states play the long game — they have their list of targets and wait for the right moment to get in their systems … This is the perfect time. There's so much noise and so much change," he said.

Those fears were amplified earlier this week after reports of an apparently unsuccessful attempt to compromise the Health and Human Services Department's computer systems. In a Monday press briefing, a reporter asked HHS Secretary Alex Azar if the attack originated from a foreign country like Iran or Russia. Azar said that HHS is investigating the source of the activity, but he didn't want to speculate. Attorney General William Barr told the Associated Press there would be swift and severe action if the attack is linked to a foreign government.

Ben Read, senior manager for cyber espionage analysis at FireEye, said there are already signs that some countries are taking advantage of coronavirus fears. FireEye has been involved in investigating some of the most high-profile nation-state attacks in recent years, including the 2014 attack against Sony that was linked to North Korea and the 2016 attack on the Democratic National Committee that was attributed to Russia.

Since late February, FireEye has observed two Chinese groups targeting entities in Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Mongolia with phishing attacks that use legitimate statements by political leaders and authentic statistics and advice for people worried about the disease. Malicious files included in the emails carry various payloads that can do things like log a user's keystrokes or provide a backdoor into a device, allowing the hackers to access it at a later time.

FireEye said it also intercepted a similar phishing email sent to Ukranian entities from an espionage group that supports Russian interests. The content of the email appeared to be copied from a legitimate document. Another phishing attack directed at a South Korean nongovernmental organization was linked to North Korean hackers. That email, sent in late February, included governmental health-related instructions and was titled "Coronavirus Correspondence."


Phishing email A phishing email recently intercepted by cybersecurity firm FireEye uses legitimate coronavirus-related information to lure victims. The link leads to a login page designed to steal a user's credentials — similar phishing emails have included malicious documents that infect a victim's computer with

Courtesy FireEye

It's impossible to know how successful these and other attacks have been so far, but Read suspects organizations are falling for it. "If something isn't working they would usually change things up, and we've seen these kinds of attempts increase, not decrease, so I assume it's working." He added that other factors, like the fact that "every company you've ever given your email address to is emailing you to tell you what they're doing" makes it more likely that people have their guard down when spotting phishing attempts. "People are very hungry for information right now," he said.

Some organizations might find out that they've been compromised only when an attack is carried out, Fischbach said. "It's very likely that we'll find out six to 12 months from now [that many organizations have been breached]," he said.


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One bright note is that the attacks don't seem to be more technologically sophisticated than the ones companies typically deal with, Read said. Standard security procedures, anti-malware tools, and phishing email detection software will still prevent many of these attacks, he said. But additional user education is needed to help identify suspicious emails that carry legitimate coronavirus information. The Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recently warned companies of such attacks, and advised them on how to improve their cybersecurity posture during the pandemic.

Although FireEye has identified coronavirus-related attacks from China, Russia and North Korea, it hasn't noticed any linked to Iran, Read said. That could be because Iranian phishing attempts haven't been detected, or because the virus has hobbled the country's hacking apparatus. "There are big questions in my mind that we don't have answers to. How do these outbreaks affect Iranian cyberespionage if the people behind the keyboards are getting sick?" he said. "We're still seeing Chinese activity, but you might see more of an impact in Iran because they have a pretty severe outbreak and fewer resources than the Chinese government."

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