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Hacking against corporations soars as staff work from home

Image credit: Eva Blanco | Dreamstime

Hacking activity against corporations in the US and other countries has more than doubled since last month as digital thieves exploited security weakened by pandemic work-from-home policies, an investigation has found.

According to experts, corporate security teams have a harder time protecting data when it is dispersed on home computers with widely varying setups and on company machines connecting remotely. Officials and researchers have also said that even those remote workers using virtual private networks (VPNs), which establish secure tunnels for digital traffic, are adding to the problem.

This week, software and security company VMWare Carbon Black said that ransomware attacks it monitored jumped 148 per cent in March from the previous month, as governments worldwide curbed movement to slow the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 130,000 people.

“There is a digitally historic event occurring in the background of this pandemic, and that is there is a cyber-crime pandemic that is occurring,” said VMWare cyber-security strategist Tom Kellerman. “It’s just easier, frankly, to hack a remote user than it is someone sitting inside their corporate environment. VPNs are not bullet-proof, they're not the be-all, end-all.”

Using data from US-based Team Cymru, which has sensors with access to millions of networks, the researchers, from Finland’s Arctic Security, found that the number of networks experiencing malicious activity was more than double in March in the US and many European countries compared with January, soon after the virus was first reported in China.

According to the researchers, the biggest jump in volume came as computers responded to scans when they should not have. Such scans often look for vulnerable software that would enable deeper attacks.

“Rules for safe communication, such as barring connections to disreputable web addresses, tend to be enforced less when users take computers home,” said analyst Lari Huttunen at Arctic. “That means previously safe networks can become exposed.”

He added that in many cases, corporate firewalls and security policies had protected machines that had been infected by viruses or targeted malware. Outside of the office, that protection can fall off sharply, allowing the infected machines to communicate again with the original hackers.

That has been exacerbated because the sharp increase in VPN volume led some stressed technology departments to permit less rigorous security policies. “Everybody is trying to keep these connections up, and security controls or filtering are not keeping up at these levels,” Huttunen explained.

The US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency agreed this week that VPNs bring a host of new problems with them, saying: “as organisations use VPNs for telework, more vulnerabilities are being found and targeted by malicious cyber actors”.

The agency added that it is a challenge to keep VPNs updated with security fixes because they are used at all hours, instead of on a schedule that allows for routine installations during daily boot-ups or shutdowns.

Furthermore, it warned that even vigilant home users may have issues with VPNs. The DHS agency on Thursday (16 April) said some hackers who broke into VPNs provided by San Jose-based Pulse Secure before patches were available a year ago had used other programs to maintain that access.

Meanwhile, other security experts said financially motivated hackers were using pandemic fears as bait and retooling existing malicious programs such as ransomware, which encrypts a target’s data and demands payment for its release.

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