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Op-ed: With cyberattacks surging due to Covid-19, 'Digital distancing' could limit exposure

Tom Kellermann, Head of Cybersecurity Strategy, VMware Carbon Black
Key Points
  • Digital distancing means using precautions to limit the risk of cyberattacks on personal and business networks.
  • There has been a 238% increase in cyberattacks targeting certain sectors since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to research by VMware Carbon Black.
  • Adopting digital distancing is just as important as social distancing during this health crisis, says Tom Kellermann, head of cybersecurity strategy at VMware Carbon Black.
Bill Hinton | Moment | Getty Images

In recent years, I've watched as the general public has become increasingly aware that maintaining our security goes well beyond the physical realm. Devastating cyberattacks have shown the potential for major, large-scale disruptions that harm us all. And the recent move to remote work has made this threat all the more pronounced, with data showing as much as a 238% increase in cyberattacks targeting certain sectors since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to VMware Carbon Black research.

As a result, cybersecurity complaints to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center quadrupled in the past four months from 1,000 daily before the pandemic to as many as 4,000 incidents in a day, according to U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver.

With this is mind, we must all come around to the understanding that if we are to protect the stability and longevity of our society, individuals will need to apply the same sense of responsibility they have for limiting Covid-19 exposure to limiting the cyber risks they create for themselves and the organizations they interact with. In short, people need to start practicing "digital distancing."

A closer look at digital distancing

The concept of digital distancing is theoretically very similar to that of social distancing. Social distancing means taking preemptive precautions to maintain physical distance from others, with the goal of limiting the potential spread of Covid-19. Digital distancing is much the same, except instead of physical precautions, these precautions are focused on cyberspace and limit the potential risk of intrusions from malicious actors affecting ourselves and those using our networks.

The logic is relatively straightforward. In practicing digital distancing, the basic realization is that if you or someone close to you falls victim to a cyberattack on your home network because you failed to take the proper precautions, you can become a vector for a larger intrusion affecting countless others beyond yourself. The implication is that just as is the case with social distancing, we bear a social responsibility to those around us to do what we can to remain secure.

Just as is the case with social distancing, we bear a social responsibility to those around us to do what we can to remain secure.

In this context, taking the necessary steps to limit the risk we pose to the networks in which we participate, especially at a time of increased vulnerability in cyberspace, takes on a new importance.

Putting digital distancing into practice

Fortunately, adopting digital distancing practices is relatively simple and involves taking steps that most people should find accessible and easy to implement. Here are a few tips that I use myself that should help you get started.

Use a VPN. One of the first steps to take in securing your remote work operations is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Basically, a VPN obfuscates all of your web traffic, both by encrypting the data transferring back and forth from your system as well as masking your location and IP address. The result is that it becomes more difficult to snoop on what you're doing online, giving you a solid layer of security against would-be attackers. There are a number of VPNs to choose from, with some being free and others requiring a subscription while offering enhanced protection.

Utilize both router networks. Many people don't realize it, but every Wi-Fi router comes with the ability to simultaneously host two separate Wi-Fi networks. Another simple digital distancing best practice you can employ is to create one network for personal use, and the other for professional work. The protections offered by taking this step are two-fold: not only does it mean that intrusions via your personal devices and activities cannot be used to tunnel back to your organization's network with potentially catastrophic and far-reaching results, it also means intrusions made into your organization's network cannot be used to then target others in your home.

Create strong passwords. Most people underestimate how easy it is for the modern hacker to use "brute force" to crack a password. The truth is that given how accessible significant processing power has become to the average hacker, passwords that aren't up to the latest security standards can be guessed in short periods of time and with relative ease. Make your passwords full sentences, as this draws out character length and makes it harder for machines to guess. Once you've created a strong password, combining it with multi-factor authentication (MFA), wherein your ability to log into an account is also tied to a cell phone or other device, can drastically increase the security of your devices and accounts.

Utilize next-gen antivirus software on all devices, including Macs. Next-gen antivirus solutions that go beyond traditional antivirus leveraging threat intelligence and predictive analytics have become necessary in the modern era. This software is fundamental; see it as your guard dog. Whether you're on Windows or a Mac, all of your devices should have this basic protection in place.

Use good judgement online. In the same way you wouldn't walk up to someone coughing at the supermarket, you need to be careful with who you interact with online. We're seeing a flurry of activity from hackers using the Covid-19 crisis to trick unsuspecting individuals into clicking malicious links or downloading malicious files. With this in mind, it's important you stay vigilant and tread carefully when online, making sure you know what you're clicking and downloading each and every time. In addition, update all your devices every Tuesday night. This ensures that the latest security fixes have been deployed to mitigate software vulnerabilities.

Create a safe room. Hackers have a tendency to turn on proximity settings for any smart devices' microphones and cameras when breaching a home. Dedicate one room in your home to be a room free of smart devices. This will guarantee you privacy in that setting.

A positive outlook

As the global response to Covid-19 continues to progress, the changes that take place as a result will have effects that last well beyond the immediate threat posed by the virus. Our society is currently at a tipping point, and whether or not we grow from this experience will depend largely on the individual actions of each and every one of us. I am confident that if we all take our responsibilities seriously, not just in physical but cyberspace as well, our society will come out of the pandemic stronger than before and well prepared for the next era of work in the 21st century.

Cyber security expert on how remote workers can protect themselves from hackers