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Hackers Rock the Crown

From COVID research to football club, UK has been a happy target of cyberattacks in the past year

Cybersecurity had been steadily assuming greater importance as communication technologies became all-pervasive and more and more devices were interconnected. And the pandemic situation had provided a soft target to hackers as the world carried on high-security business activities through relatively under-protected network connections. As a result, UK had been a constant target of cyberattacks ever since COVID-19 broke loose. This has now been officially recognised by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in its recently published annual report.

The report documents a total of 723 cyberattacks in all during the period under review, which spans from September 2019 to August 2020. This means it covered the crucial lockdown period in 2020. Authorities specified that most of these attacks were of criminal nature. The total number of 723 reported is 10% higher than that of the previous year and includes 194 attacks that were specifically related to COVID-19.

On the positive side, the report mentioned that NCSN had prevented 15,354 attacks which leveraged theCOVID-19pandemic to bait device-users into clicking on spurious links or opening attachments containing malware. Coronavirus-related cyberattacks are still evolving across the globe and the approaches of the hackers are as varied as far their imagination goes. However, most of the UK attacks focussed on false claims to sell COVID protective gear or PPE, COVID test kits, medications and vaccines.

Another area of operation for cyberattacks was laboratories and databases involved in the research effort for COVID vaccines. The UK authorities admitted being wary of states targeting the vaccine research-and-delivery programme and conceded it to be an ongoing threat. In fact, Britain had directly accused Russia of trying to steal vaccine-related information through cyber-espionage in July this year.

In its annual report, the NCSC claimed that throughout the period under review, it had analysed over than one million IP addresses belonging to the UK National Health Service to identify vulnerabilities wherein 51,000 indicators of compromise were located. The NCSC had also conducted “threat hunting” to unearth security hazards on connected devices, and also fortified the security levels of the NHS COVID-19 contact-tracing app.

According to the report, the classic ransomware attack still held centre stage and had turned more aggressive as well. Between September 2019 and August 2020 the NCSC had to deal with more than three times as many ransomware incidents as in the previous year. The report mentioned that such attacks are increasingly proving to be more targeted and aggressive than ever before. Rather than just locking people out of access to their data until a ransom was paid, attackers now often threatened to embarrass victims if they refused to comply. Such threats mostly include sensitive data being made public online. As a result, loss of access to data was not the only concern and victims remain at risk even if they had proper back up for all data.

Close on the heels of the NCSC annual report being published, UK was rocked by another high profile cyberattack – but this time aimed at a most unexpected domain: that of sports! Britain’s prestigious football club Manchester United have been hit by a “sophisticated” cyber-attack. The Man U authorities officially refused to admit any major threat owing to the attack. Their formal statement says: “The club has taken swift action to contain the attack and is working with expert advisers to investigate the incident….Our cyber defences identified the attack and shut down affected systems to contain the damage and protect data….We are not currently aware of any breach of personal data associated with our fans and customers. All critical systems required for matches to take place at Old Trafford remain secure and operational.”. The Information Commissioner’s Office is carrying out forensic tracing to detect more clues about the origins of the attack.

However, although the legendary club is on a denial mode, some reports suggest things are not as innocent as projected. Manchester United may possibly be under a ransomware attack that could run into millions. There were also rumoured risks of member and fan data being exposed to threats. It looks like we could be hearing more about this in the days to come.

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