Mass move to work from home in coronavirus crisis creates opening for hackers, say cyber experts

Government officials have issued warnings about the dangers of a newly remote workforce, while tech companies are seeing surges in requests to help secure out-of-office employees. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEL AVIV/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - As people disperse to their homes to work and study because of the coronavirus pandemic, taking their laptops and company data with them, cyber security experts say hackers will follow, seeking to take advantage and infiltrate corporations.

Government officials in the United States, Britain and elsewhere have issued warnings about the dangers of a newly remote workforce, while tech companies are seeing surges in requests to help secure out-of-office employees.

At Cisco Systems Inc, for example, the number of requests for security support to support remote workforces have jumped 10-fold in the last few weeks.

"People who have never worked from home before are trying to do it and they are trying to do it at scale," said Ms Wendy Nather, a senior adviser with Cisco's Duo Security who has spent the past decade working from home for various jobs.

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 forking over their passwords.

Criminals are dressing up password-stealing messages and malicious software as coronavirus-themed alerts, warnings, or apps.

Some researchers have found hackers masquerading as the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in a bid to break into e-mails or swindle users out of bitcoin, while others have spotted hackers using a malicious virus-themed app to hijack Android phones.

Advanced cyber spies also appear to be exploiting the coronavirus outbreak that has 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 try to break into an unidentified Mongolian government network.

On Friday, US cyber security officials released an advisory warning companies to update their Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and be on guard against a surge of malicious e-mails 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 they are doing what they can to use it to infiltrate into organisations", said Mr Esti Peshin, the head of the cyber division at state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel's largest defence contractor.

The opportunities for hackers are manifold.

Many workers are moving their employers' data from professionally managed corporate networks to home WiFi setups protected with basic passwords.

Some organisations are loosening restrictions to allow employers to access work-critical information from their bedrooms or home offices.

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

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

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

"Remote learning sites tend to be not encrypted and insecure," Mr Peshin said, calling them "very ripe grounds for cyber attacks against children".

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