Working from home could open doors for hackers


As people disperse to homes to work and study because of the coronavirus pandemic, with laptops and company data, cyber security experts say hackers will follow, seeking to take advantage and infiltrate corporations.

Government officials in the US, Britain and elsewhere issued warnings about the dangers of a new remote workforce, while tech companies see surges in requests to help secure out-of-office employees. At Cisco Systems, for example, requests for security support to remote workforces jumped 10-fold in a few weeks.

“People who never worked from home before are trying to do it and are trying to do it at scale,” said Wendy Nather, a senior advisor with Cisco’s Duo Security who spent a decade working from home.

She said the sudden transition would mean more scope for mistakes, more strain on information technology staff and more opportunity for cyber criminals hoping to trick employees into handing over passwords.

Criminals are dressing up password-stealing messages and malicious software as coronavirus-themed alerts, warnings, or apps. Some researchers found hackers masquerading as the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in a bid to break into emails or swindle users out of bitcoin, while others spotted hackers using a malicious virus-themed app to hijack Android phones.

Advanced cyber spies appear to be exploiting the coronavirus outbreak that infected more than 210 000 people and killed 8 700 worldwide.

Last week researchers at Israeli company Check Point discovered suspected state-backed hackers using a booby-trapped coronavirus update to break into an unidentified Mongolian government network.

On Friday US cyber security officials released an advisory warning companies to update Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and be on guard against malicious emails aimed at an already disoriented workforce. On Tuesday, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre issued a six-page leaflet for businesses managing remote employees.

Cyber criminals are alert to the work from home trend “and are doing what they can to infiltrate organisations,” said Esti Peshin, head of the cyber division at state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel’s largest defence contractor.

Opportunities for hackers are manifold.

Many workers move employer data from professionally managed corporate networks to home WiFi setups protected by basic passwords. Some organisations loosen restrictions to allow employers to access work-critical information.

Working from home might expose employees to lower-tech threats too, including theft or loss of electronic equipment or plain human error by adjusting to a new environment.

Cisco’s Nather said the new work-from-home employees might be a boon for tech support scammers, impersonators pretending to fix an IT problem in an effort to gain control of a target’s computer.

Israel’s Peshin said networks used by school children and college students were also at risk as they are forced to take classes online because their institutions have been shuttered by the crisis.

“Remote learning sites tend to be not encrypted and insecure,” Peshin said, calling them “ripe grounds for cyberattacks against children.”