In the digital era which began in the 1980s, technology is widely used in order to store and share information all across the world. With further advancement in the digital network, internet came into the fore starting from 1990s. Internet refers to the global network of computers that share information and help in communication among them and it consists of interconnected networks. With the globalisation, internet has taken the driver’s seat in today’s world with its use in almost all sectors.
Cyber-attacks refer to attack by miscreants, terrorists or other hackers and scammers on the digital network and over the systems which use digital network. Unauthorised access of data, theft of data, manipulation and damage of data by means of malware, viruses etc are some of the activities of cyber attacker. These attacks may be directed towards an individual, an organisation or even the government. During the ongoing pandemic, people have become more dependent on technology for various works and in such scenario, it has been seen that cyber attacks have also considerably increased with an increase in use of technology, systems and devices like laptops, mobiles etc.
The rapid spread of computers, electronic devices like mobiles and digitalisation of information, has revolutionised the information and communication system. However, with the various advantages that computers, other devices and internet network provide in terms of speed of communication, speed of functioning, hassle-free sharing and storing of data and information etc, they also give rise to issues of cyber threats. Cyber attacks are attacks that are initiated over virtual space and are directed to damage information or steal information from different users and misuse them without the permission of the users. Cyber attacks are launched by miscreants against individuals, organisations or even the government and these attacks disrupt the normal functioning of digital network. Cyber threats and attacks can be traced back to the beginning of digital era i.e. 1980s. However, in the ongoing pandemic situation, spurt of cyber attacks have been reported and witnessed in different sectors and in various countries all over the world.
Cyber Threats, Types and Areas from Which These Are Rising
As discussed, cyber threats refer to malicious attempts directed towards disrupting or damaging a computer network or internet framework or information and data stored. Cyber threats also include attempts to infiltrate and access files and data illegally or steal the data. Cyber attacks can be initiated by a wide range of perpetrators like terrorists, spies, criminal groups, hackers, business competitors, inside worker of an organization having grudge against the organization, other anti-social elements and may also include nation states or national governments.
Cyber threats can be of different types based on the modes or procedures used to access or misuse the data. Cyber threats may be directed to affect the web-based network or may be directed to affect a computer or computer network.
Malware, which refers to malicious softwares that are used by perpetrators to disrupt a system and these get installed in the system without the permission of the user. Malware can be used to extract personal information, location data, financial account details and other sensitive information. Viruses (software that attaches to a program, alters the functioning of the system and spreads to other systems), Trojans (it is similar to virus but it does not replicate itself like the virus however it may be used to open a backdoor for access of the attacker) and worms (software that propagate through systems without attaching themselves to any other program and these are generally spread through attachments in email or messages and once the attachment is opened the program gets activated) are some of the malwares that are used by cyber attackers. Ransomware is a type of malware which blocks user access to data and the attackers ask for a ransom in return for not deleting or publishing the sensitive information of the victim. Spyware is also a type of cyber threat which gets installed in the system and collects information about a user. It tracks all the activities of the user like browsing habits and sends the information to the attacker. It may also download and install other malicious software in the system. Botnets are also softwares used to infect large number of devices that are interlinked by internet.
DDoS or the Denial of Service attack or Distributed Denial of Service Attack is another type of cyber attack where the attacker takes over the control of devices and modifies the systems to function as per his/her needs. DDoS attacks may cause websites to crash due to overload. MitM or Man in the Middle is a type of attack in which the attacker takes a position between the sender and recipient of electronic messages and intercepts them. The attacker manipulates the messages without the knowledge of the sender and the receiver. Phishing is another common type of cyber attack in which fraudulent emails are sent to users and made to appear as if they are from trusted sources. The emails then tricks the users to reveal information or influences the users to perform certain tasks like clicking on hyper link which then downloads malware into the system without the user’s knowledge. Spear Phishing is a more advanced form of phishing where the attackers carefully impersonates a user by means of his messages, personal information and other data and then attacks a known or trusted user of the 1st victim. Data breach is also a type of cyber attack when the data stored in a system is stolen by malicious actor with the intention of executing criminal activities, exposing the data of an organization in order to embarrass the institution or espionage.
Brute force is a type of attack that involves trial and error method. In this the attacker uses a large number of guesses and tries to obtain the original password or other information like personal identity number. Dictionary attack is a type of brute force attack where the attacker instead of using random combinations uses a stored list of commonly used passwords. Another variation of brute force is password spraying attack. In this the attackers use a modified trial and error method in order to avoid counter measures like blocking of account after three or five wrong attempts set up by organizations. In password spraying, attackers spray the same password across many accounts before trying another password. Injection attacks like Structured Query Language (SQL) injection are used to modify a website or application to obtain the required information. Session hijacking or cookie hijacking is also a type of attack in which attacker gains access to the stored cookies that are usually kept by websites in order to maintain session activity. After obtaining the cookies the attacker can gain access to data used in the session.
During the pandemic, social distancing norms have given rise to use of more technology in order to complete actions. In such a scenario, the developed nations that have advanced in the information technology field have had to deal with the direct and heavy impact of cyber attacks. United States reported about 148% increase in Ransomware attacks over the baseline levels from February 2020. Countries of Europe like Czech also have witnessed a sudden surge in the cyber attacks after the onset of pandemic. Even the WHO has reported a dramatic increase in cyber attacks mainly affecting its staff and also the general public. India a rapidly evolving nation in terms of information technology has also reported surge in cyber attacks. Kerala is among the worst hit targets of cyber attacks in the recent time.
Reasons for Increase in Cyber Threats During the Pandemic
One of the major reasons behind increasing cyber attacks during the pandemic is the environment of fear and anxiety that has been created due to the spread of covid-19. Attackers are virtually taking advantage of fear among the people by alluring them to open sites, attachments and other malwares so as to receive information regarding the virus, its spreading capacity, the status of vaccine and other related information. Once the users open such sites, the attackers gain access to their personal information. Trojans and other softwares are being used to hoodwink people into believing that certain particular applications would provide them information like distance from nearest covid-19 patient on paying a small amount etc. Such tactics exposes the people and their personal information like financial details etc to the attackers. Other such apps for buying masks, other required products like gloves, sanitizers etc have also been introduced by scammers which has increased the vulnerability of people to become prey of cyber attacks. Covid-19 themed links email attachments; text messages etc have also been widely spread and have successfully fooled huge number of people.
Even in India numerous covid-19 themed attacks have been noticed and reported. Another major issue that has made the people vulnerable to cyber attacks is the increasing dependence on digital means. The work-from-home approach, online delivery so as to avoid social contact and depending on the digital network and devices like laptop, mobiles, tabs etc for almost all types of works during this pandemic has resulted in an increase in the incidences of cyber attacks due to increase in the base of users. Reports of cyber attacks on IT network of Prague airport and a regional Czech hospital also indicate the fact that cyber attackers are targeting infrastructure of nations also and Ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure and hospitals have also been reported. Scammers have also hacked WHO network and gained access to certain information and thereafter leaked about 450 active WHO email addresses and passwords online. These people are also targeting people to gather funds for fighting covid-19 by using fake name of WHO and other such established organizations.
Cyber Security and Indian Perspective
In today’s world, digital technology has become vital in almost all sectors. India being a rapidly growing economy is not exempt from the effects of this technology. In order to ensure fast services and to empower the citizens in the field of technology the Indian government had launched the Digital India campaign in 2015 in order to provide government services electronically, improve digital infrastructure and increase internet connectivity so as to ensure fast sharing of information. A developing nation like India cannot sideline digital network completely. In such a scenario, it becomes crucial to establish a system that is free from threats. In this backdrop, cyber security which means the technologies, processes and practices used to protect computers systems, networks, other devices and data from unwanted and unauthorized access, theft or damage, becomes important for India. Indian cyber network is not as developed as developed nations like USA and this puts the information about users and wide variety of other data at great risk from cyber attacks. The government, military, corporate, financial and medical organizations use, store and share huge amounts of data in the digital network. Without efficient, well developed and robust security barriers these sensitive information can be accessed by unauthorized persons, manipulated and misused by terrorists, hackers or even other nations or governments which would jeopardize the security and integrity of the nation. Top intelligence agencies also have reported that cyber attacks and digital spying pose great threat to nation’s security.
Another aspect of the issue is in relation to cyber attacks in the present time of pandemic. India has the 2nd largest population and the spread of the pandemic has caused havoc in India. There are certain major issues that need to be addressed in this respect. First, Indian economy has suffered a setback due to lockdown situation. The economic condition of large number of people has deteriorated and in such a case the malwares, fraudulent emails and other such attacks tend to further damage the economy condition of citizens as well as the entire nation. Second, work-from-home approach has also been adopted in India wherever possible in order to avoid transmission of the virus on massive scale. India’s cyber security needs to be well equipped to deal with the dynamic cyber attacks that have affected nations all over the world else vital data and sensitive information of millions of people would be at risk from cyber attackers. Corona themed emails, attachments, URLs, unique files modified to be represented as documents for spreading awareness about the virus etc can fool a huge section of the society. Besides affecting financial condition of the people, such attacks would also increase the spread of fear and anxiety for covid-19 which would be devastating for India. As per a survey conducted by ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association), “only 51% of technology professionals and leader were confident that their security system would be able to detect and respond to the rising cyber security attacks during covid-19. Also only 59% said that, their cyber security team had tools and other necessary resources to deal with this issue.” These statistics indicate that the global cyber network needs more improvement and India having already noticed thousands of corona virus themed attacks between February and May 2020, also cannot stay behind and needs to take urgent steps to strengthen its cyber security.
Steps Taken So Far Against Cyber Attacks and Their Effectiveness
Considering the spurt in cyber attacks during the pandemic, UK and USA have issued a joint advisory against cyber attackers primarily those attacking the health sector. The different organizations have been proactively participating in spotting and dealing with malicious files, websites and other attacks. During the month of April, Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) also issued an advisory containing series of suggestions related to cyber security. BSE had also cautioned market players regarding the increasing threat from cyber attacks and had asked different institutions and entities to adhere to guidelines issued by cyber security agency CERT-In. The suggestions include immediate reporting of any incident to relevant authorities, advice to employees who work from home to opt for private space and if they work on public place then they should ensure that privacy screen remains intact. It has also asked users to change default passwords of home routers so as to avoid hacking of the network. Use of updated antivirus and malware protection software needs to be used in devices like laptops, mobiles etc. The advisory also has cautioned people against opening or clicking on suspicious links and attachments received through emails and messages. Educating the members about cyber security risks has also been introduced in number of organizations. On the matter of covid-19 related queries, WHO has advised people to remain vigilant and depend only on reliable sources for information related to the pandemic.
In the month of May, Interpol organized an awareness campaign on cyber threats during the covid-19 outbreak along with other law enforcement agencies all over the world. Basic cyber hygiene knowledge, information about methods to protect user systems and data, increasing social media outreach and highlighting the top threats based on collected data, online information sharing groups etc are some of the guidelines mentioned in the campaign. The Interpol’s campaign besides focusing on providing technical guidance to victim organizations also focused on conducting surveys in order to understand the evolving cyber attacks and future trends. Interpol issues Purple Notices to notify member countries about the emerging cyber threats so that they prepare in accordance to deal with the issue.
Even though number of advisories have been issued and nations are striving hard to address the rising issue of cyber attacks, but still the attacks have not been effectively managed. Reports state that there has been about 600% increase in malicious emails during the current pandemic further it has been estimated that one cyber attack is occurring every 39 seconds. These statistics indicate that the advisories and guidelines issued by various organizations like Interpol, WHO etc though may have helped to increase awareness but have not been successful in curbing the issue. As per statements from Microsoft corporations, Asia also has witnessed significant increase in cyber attacks beside USA, UK etc. However, the cases have been comparatively low in India.
In the present era of digitalization, internet and technology have occupied a crucial position in our daily life. Use of technology or digital platform cannot be completely banned or sidelined as it forms a major linking network among people, various organizations and even between governments. Almost all sectors use technology be it communication, defence, finance, education or any other sector. It is essential to develop robust monitoring networks to detect cyber attacks and cyber security infrastructure needs to be improved in order to strengthen the digital network. India is in a stage of rapid development and in such situation India needs to be prepared to deal with threats that may arise due to increase in use of technology. India’s cyber security needs to be improved and India can learn from other developed nations like USA and adopt approaches to effectively deal with cyber attacks and thereby safeguard the security of the nation.