The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which has put almost the entire Western world on lockdown, has triggered a spike in cyberattacks and cybercrimes. The European Commission has raised the alert level, urging strong cyber resilience. A survey done by Barracuda Networks, a U.S. company providing security software, indicated that almost half of companies around the world had suffered a cybersecurity issue amid COVID-19.
In the Western media, China has frequently been accused of state-sponsored cyber espionage on Western governments and private industries. The UK's National Cyber Security Centre and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly alleged in May that state-backed hackers from China, Russia and Iran were trying to steal coronavirus research from Western universities and scientific facilities.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the DHS have also reportedly blamed China for seeking "valuable intellectual property and public health data… related to vaccines, treatments, and testing" illicitly.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China has been the target of unfounded accusations. At first, the Chinese Government was accused of covering up the spread of the virus. Later on, when COVID-19 became a pandemic, the United States ran a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus might have come from a lab in Wuhan, the city in China where the domestic outbreak was first reported. President Donald Trump ordered all U.S. intelligence agencies to gather information on the origins of COVID-19, which is a strong hint that China will undergo scrutiny.
All of these accusations prompted hackers to attack Chinese government networks. In April, Reuters reported that hackers attempted to break into "Chinese state organizations at the center of Beijing's efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak" and collect intelligence. In the future, China could suffer more attacks due to being scapegoated for the COVID-19 outbreak.
No country wants cooperation in cybersecurity more than China. Without global action, the whole world faces greater threats and challenges.
Attacks on remote workers
There have been extensive reports that businesses as well as individuals are increasingly becoming victims of cybercrimes focusing on personal data theft, and on critical infrastructure and remote workforce. China is no exception.
Security software firm McAfee found that the number of attacks on Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), a system that enables remote workers to log on to their office computers and access business networks, increased significantly during COVID-19, with 52 percent of the stolen RDP certificates coming from Chinese users. With the vast majority of companies remote-working since the outbreak, a breach will cause severe financial consequences for the Chinese business sector.
A report by business consultancy KPMG in May said organized crime groups were seeking to monetize the fear, uncertainty and doubt many people feel during the pandemic through cybercrimes. COVID-19-themed phishing, which attempts to obtain personal information through fraudulent means and other kinds of fraud, have skyrocketed.
According to a report issued by Qihoo 360, one of the largest cybersecurity firms in China, from January to March, there was a 47-percent spike in cybercrimes compared to the same period in 2019. Personal protection equipment fraud accounted for 88 percent of the reported crimes. In addition, there were financial scams, phishing campaigns, fraudulent websites and conferencing platforms, and mobile malware.
Unlike the West, China is a latecomer in both establishing a special force and introducing legislation to protect its cyberspace. Unlike the United States, which has established a unified military and civilian cyber command as one of the 11 unified commands of the U.S. Department of Defense, China has a fragmented institutional response toward cybersecurity threats.
It was as recently as in 2015 that the People's Liberation Army had the Strategic Support Force to deal with information and communications technology (ICT) challenges from abroad. The same year, China issued its first military strategy for the information age and recognized that the form of war was accelerating toward informationization.
In addition, the Ministry of State Security and other intelligence units also deal with cyberattacks from overseas.
Two laws, the State Security Law (2015) and the Cybersecurity Law (2016), are the cornerstones of China's cyber legislation. Article 25 of the State Security Law provides for a cyber and information security safeguard by "…increasing network management, preventing, stopping and lawfully punishing unlawful and criminal activity on networks such as network attacks, network intrusion, cybertheft, and dissemination of unlawful and harmful information."
The Cybersecurity Law is the most comprehensive legislation safeguarding China's ICT with 79 articles. They cover areas from personal information protection to Internet operator security protection to restrictions on the transfer of personal information and business data overseas.
However, experts say while the law provides a basic legal framework for cyberspace governance, it should be supplemented by regulations.
Global efforts needed
Besides traditional cybersecurity risks, new threats are emerging, such as increased risks from remote working/learning and state-sponsored cyber espionage against public health sectors and research and development industries.
In addition, many industries such as food suppliers and the logistics industry have now become essential sectors of socioeconomic development. However, they are ill-prepared for cyberattacks.
All these threats and challenges cannot be addressed by the ICT sector alone. The government must step in to provide funding, regulations and legislation to address these concerns.
Under the post-COVID-19 new norms, certain numbers of the workforce will be expected to work remotely. Their protection has to be not just technological but also needs to include new regulations and legislation that will focus on big businesses as well as small and medium-sized businesses and individuals.
For instance, before the outbreak, only 27 percent globally worked remotely on average. This number rose to 60 percent as of March 31, according to accounting service provider Deloitte. Yet, the Barracuda survey indicated that 41 percent of enterprises globally intended to reduce spending on cybersecurity due to financial strain. The protection of non-governmental organizations and international organizations should also be included in the new laws and regulations. It is anticipated that they will face more cyberattacks as well to glean information, especially on their strategy, as well as public organizations, such as hospitals and universities, for their knowledge.
Governments, businesses and individuals are ill-prepared for cyberattacks and cybercrimes. Law enforcement is slow and companies and individuals are left mainly to their own resources when facing cybercrimes. All these problems will worsen because the gravity and intensity of these crimes is increasing due to COVID-19.
Cybersecurity is going to become one of the most pressing issues for the ICT industry and national security. Unfortunately, just as there is no vaccine for COVID-19 at present, there is also a lack of global cooperation and coordination in the fight against cyberattacks and cyber espionage, which tempts certain organizations and individuals to explore the vulnerable cyberspace in crisis.
No country is exempt from cyber threats and challenges. Instead of finger-pointing at one another, lawmakers and policymakers worldwide need to come together to address the issues created by COVID-19 unitedly in the days to come.
The author is a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University, east China
(Print Edition Title: COVID-19 and Cybersecurity)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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