Picture: 123RF/WELCOMIA
Picture: 123RF/WELCOMIA

San Francisco — Hacking activity against corporations in the US and other countries more than doubled by some measures last month as digital thieves take advantage of security weakened by pandemic work-from-home policies, researchers said.

Corporate security teams have a harder time protecting data when it is dispersed on home computers with widely varying set-ups and on company machines connecting remotely, experts said. Even those remote workers using virtual private networks (VPNs), which establish secure tunnels for digital traffic, are adding to the problem, officials and researchers said.

Software and security company VMWare Carbon Black said this week that ransomware attacks it monitors jumped 148% in March from the previous month, as governments worldwide curb movement to slow the coronavirus, which has killed more than 145,000.

“There is a digitally historic event occurring in the background of this pandemic, and that is there is a cyber-crime pandemic,” 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, researchers at 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.

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.

The researchers plan to release their country-by-country findings next week.

No corporate firewalls

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. In many cases, corporate firewalls and security policies had protected machines that had been infected by viruses or targeted malware, he said. Outside 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 said.

The US department of homeland security’s (DHS) cyber-security agency agreed this week that VPNs bring with them a host of new problems. “As organisations use VPNs for telework, more vulnerabilities are being found and targeted by malicious cyber-actors,” wrote the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The agency said it is harder 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.

Even vigilant home users may have problems with VPNs. The DHS agency said on Thursday that 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.

Other security experts said financially motivated hackers are 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.

Reuters