The other virus threat: Surge in COVID-themed cyberattacks

This image obtained March 16, 2020 courtesy of The National Institutes of Health(NIH)/NIAD-RML shows a 3D print of a spike protein of SARS-CoV-2óalso known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19óin front of a 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. (AFP)
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Updated 18 March 2020

The other virus threat: Surge in COVID-themed cyberattacks

  • Attackers are taking advantage of people’s fears about COVID-19 with scare tactics to get people to click on malicious links or attachments, but also playing on sympathies with fake crowdfunding pages purported to be for people who have fallen ill

WASHINGTON: It may look like an email from a supervisor with an attachment on the new “work from home policy.” But it could be a cleverly designed scheme to hack into your network.
The abrupt move of millions of people to working remotely has sparked an unprecedented volume of attacks to trick people into giving up credentials to attackers, according to security researchers.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Sherrod DeGrippo, head of threat research for the security firm Proofpoint.
“We are seeing campaigns with message volumes up to hundreds of thousands which are leveraging this coronavirus.”
The pandemic has created a perfect storm for cyberattacks, with millions of people working in unfamiliar, less secure circumstances and eager for information about the virus and new organizational policies being implemented.
This opens up a new avenue for malicious actors using phishing emails or “social engineering” to gain access or steal sensitive information.
“When someone is working form their home it is a similar threat profile as at an airport or a Starbucks, you just don’t have that protection you might have in the workplace,” DeGrippo said.
“And if we’re at home with our family where we feel safe, you might see a family member hop on to do homework, and might not understand the security controls. Keeping mom’s and dad’s computer for mom and dad is the right thing to do.”

Tom Pendergast of the security and privacy training firm MediaPRO said many of the millions of people adjusting to the new landscape are unprepared for teleworking.
“It’s one thing if people have been working remotely with equipment that has been properly configured,” Pendergast said. “It’s different for people who haven’t had that experience.”
Attackers are taking advantage of people’s fears about COVID-19 with scare tactics to get people to click on malicious links or attachments, but also playing on sympathies with fake crowdfunding pages purported to be for people who have fallen ill, he added.
Pendergast said health care organizations are especially susceptible to schemes such as ransomware because “they are less likely to shut down their systems by refusing to pay.”
This was highlighted with a major hospital in the Czech Republic hit with ransomware following an email campaign with a coronavirus “awareness” message, according to media reports.
“The COVID-19 scare has proven lucrative for cybercriminals in recent weeks as health care institutions scramble to test patients, treat the infected and protect their own staff from the contagion,” said a blog post from Filip Truta of the security firm BitDefender.
“Healthcare infrastructures are highly susceptible to hacker attacks because of lax cybersecurity skills and safeguards.”

The potential for costly cyberattacks has prompted warnings for stepped up vigilance.
The French public-private cybersecurity alliance this week warned businesses to be alert for faked emails related to purported orders or bank transfers, or phone calls aimed at obtained financial account information.
The US Department of Homeland Security issued an alert this month warning that the COVID epidemic has increased threats and that “cyber actors may send emails with malicious attachments or links to fraudulent websites to trick victims into revealing sensitive information.”
Hawaii’s attorney general Clare Connors advised residents to watch for fraudulent emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or experts saying they have information about the virus.
“Scammers may still offer fake vaccines and other bogus medical products claiming to offer ‘cures’ for the virus,” a statement from Connors’ office said.
DeGrippo said virtually all the cyber schemes related to the pandemic are financially motivated and added that “personally I find it depraved... it is taking humanity at its most vulnerable and trying to use that for financial gain.”
She warned that the threats may evolve as attackers craft new scheme and techniques.
“I can see some attackers sending messages like, ‘I’m in quarantine and need you to buy something for me,’ or ‘I need you to make this transfer of funds,’” she said.
“I think we’ll see criminals leveraging the coronavirus to do more of that.”

Genes that helped our Arabian ancestors to survive could now be killing us

Updated 25 March 2020

Genes that helped our Arabian ancestors to survive could now be killing us

  • Researchers find genetic traits that evolved to cope with extreme heat and scarce food are dangerous when we have plenty to eat and air conditioning
  • When combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the adaptations increase risk of obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes

LONDON: Researchers in Kuwait have identified a section of DNA that once helped nomadic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula survive the harsh conditions there, but now is believed to be partly responsible for high rates of diabetes and obesity across the Middle East.
The research suggests that lack of exercise and a bad diet are not the only reasons for the prevalence of metabolic disorders in the region — genetic factors also play a part.
The study, by the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) in Kuwait, examined more than 600,000 genetic variations in the DNA of hundreds of Kuwaitis. The scientists found multiple areas of DNA associated with health problems, such as hypertension and diabetes, that had evolved over generations.
The findings, recently published in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal, lead the researchers to believe that a genetic adaption that helped the Kuwaitis’ ancestors survive as hunter gatherers in the extreme desert environment is now partly responsible for a health crisis in modern populations.
“The theory was that there must be something very different in the genetic makeup that protected (the ancestors) from the weather, a lack of food and made their metabolism extremely low,” said Prof. Fahd Al-Mulla, DDI’s chief scientific officer and senior author of the study.

Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) is a Kuwaiti-based medical research center which works to prevent and treat diabetes and related conditions in Kuwait through various research, training, education and health promotion programs. (Supplied)

“This is fine if you live in hot weather and if you do not have a lot of food but this gene becomes a killer if you have plenty of food to eat, you sit in the air conditioning, and you change your environment.”
The genetic variations highlighted by the study were found in and around the TNKS gene, which is associated with hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Kuwait has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world; about 40 percent of the population is overweight. Other Gulf countries are not far behind, and their populations are plagued by rising levels of associated disorders, including diabetes and hypertension.
While modern sedentary lifestyles are often blamed for this, and clearly are a factor, the study uncovers the detrimental effects of ancestral genetic adaptation on the health of present-day Kuwaitis.
“Our research spots the regions of the genome that might have induced active metabolism and hypertension in nomadic Kuwaiti forefathers, which may favor survival in harsh environments,” said Dr. Eaaswar Muthukrishna, a genetics and bioinformatics expert at DDI.
He added that the study was the first “comprehensive analysis to detect natural selection in the Arabian Peninsula’s population.”
Al-Mulla said the discovery was important not only for raising awareness of the health risks, but also to help identify vulnerable children and advise their parents on how to ensure they do not overeat and increase the chances of developing metabolic disorders.
Along with sounding a health alert for modern populations, the research also sheds light on migration and environmental changes in the region.

“The Arabian Peninsula has experienced several waves of migrations, despite its extreme and varying environmental conditions,” the authors of the study note. “And these inhabitants eventually adapted to the hot and dry environment.
“Archaeological evidence suggests the Arabian Peninsula played a key role during the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa….therefore, the resident populations have a long and complex evolutionary history.”
Most of the ancestors of modern-day Kuwaitis were early settlers that migrated from Saudi Arabia and depended on fishing, pearl diving and seafaring as their main sources of income.
“Our previous studies revealed that the genetic structure of the Kuwait population is heterogeneous (diverse), comprising three distinct ancestral genetic backgrounds that could be linked roughly to contemporary Saudi Arabian, Persian and Bedouin populations,” according to the study.
Muthukrishna said the team is expanding its study to examine Arabian populations in Oman, Yemen, and the UAE.
“We are analyzing those data sets to see what is the pattern that exists in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said, adding that the study, which is underway, will also dig deeper into the Saudi population.