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We’re in a Cyber Pandemic — Here’s What You Can Do About It

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The COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of our lives and caused ripple effects that will continue for years to come. Many consider the economic damage as one of these knock-on effects, but it may not be the biggest threat to come out of the pandemic.

What could concern us the most in the future is the current “cyber pandemic” we find ourselves in. It’s no secret that cybercrime skyrocketed during the pandemic, but even as we roll out vaccines and return some parts of the world to a semblance of life before March 2020, cyber-attacks are only ramping up.

Is the so-called cyber pandemic something to worry about in the years to come? And if it is a major concern, is there anything individuals can do to protect themselves?

What is the cyber pandemic?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) popularized the term “cyber pandemic” after hosting a simulated cybersecurity exercise in July 2021 known as Cyber Polygon. The event brought together senior officials from international organizations and leading corporations to go through a simulated attack on a company’s supply chain and coordinate real-time responses. More than 200 organizations from over 48 countries participated in the training exercise.

The WEF has been sounding off about large-scale cyber attacks since the pandemic started, but the Cyber Polygon event marked the first time that the WEF (and others) started referring to these cybersecurity incidents collectively, as a cyber pandemic.

What is the cyber pandemic, exactly? 

The WEF characterizes the cyber pandemic in three ways:

  1. Cyber attacks on infrastructure services, such as the Colonial Pipeline hack in the US and attack on the public health service in Ireland
  2. Exploits against devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. Easier-to-execute attacks due to the huge transition to remote working

Critical infrastructure such as power grids, water treatment facilities, and healthcare systems are increasingly the targets of cyberattacks. The cyber pandemic is a pandemic because it’s widespread and affects not only businesses but also communities, cities, states, and entire countries. Also, many of the cyber attacks carried out aim to infect as many devices as possible, as quickly as possible. 

Why we should all be worried about the cyber pandemic

Cyber attackers may not target individuals, but there’s still cause for concern. When they go after infrastructure, like when hackers targeted Israel’s water treatment facility using the IoT system, it affects everyone who uses those utilities. Shutting down or poisoning a country’s or a city’s water supply leaves entire communities sick or without water. If it happens to your city, then it becomes your problem.

How are governments responding to the cyber pandemic?

Critical infrastructure in many countries is privately owned, making coordination against cyberattacks more difficult for governments. One big step is tightening cybersecurity policies for IoT devices. Infrastructure services that use IoT devices will have to implement more robust security standards. In the US, the IoT Cyber Security Improvement Act of 2020 requires US public sector entities using IoT devices to follow stricter guidelines.

Critiques of the cyber pandemic

After the WEF’s Cyber Polygon event and the 2022 Global Risks Report was released, the international organization met its fair share of criticism. One of the biggest concerns is increased government regulation of private companies that provide critical infrastructure services. With countries slapping more restrictions on IoT devices that private companies use, there could be some backlash.

Others worry that collective efforts against cyber terrorism could lead to individuals having to give up more of their personal freedoms online in the name of security. The countries of NATO and their allies could devise a “Great Firewall of the West,” according to one critic, referencing the Great Firewall of China that monitors and prohibits certain Internet activities within China’s borders.

Although these critiques of the idea of a cyber pandemic are legitimate, there’s no denying the fact that cyber-attacks have increased significantly. And they’re becoming more dangerous. 

How to protect yourself during a cyber pandemic

Coordinated attacks on critical infrastructure are left up to companies and governments to address, not individuals. If you don’t work at your city’s water treatment plant, there’s nothing you can do to prevent an attack on its facilities. 

Some steps that the WEF recommends public and private sector actors take include:

  • Agreeing on shared security principles concerning IoT devices
  • Improving security for the consumers of IoT technologies
  • Promoting international information exchange to protect supply chains

As an individual, one thing you can do is secure any IoT devices you use. IoT devices can be vulnerable to cyber attacks, no matter where they’re used. Stick to these tips for the IoT devices in your home:

  • Rest the default username and password to a series of random numbers, letters, and punctuation marks (use a password manager to help you remember).
  • Read the privacy policy and terms of service before using the device.
  • Keep your IoT device updated consistently.
  • Disable unnecessary ports or services on IoT devices, including Universal Plug n Play (UPnP).
  • Create a separate wireless network for guests in your home.
  • Avoid using public Wi-Fi to access your home’s IoT network if you’re out.

Weathering the cyber pandemic

It’s hard to say how we’ll deal with the cyber pandemic and increased threats from cybercriminals in the long-term. Individuals can practice good cybersecurity practices on their own, but it will be up to private companies and public sector entities to protect critical infrastructure from attacks.

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