Why are cyber attacks suddenly a regular news feature?

Written by Joseph Poppy on 11/05/2018

No news is good news, so the saying goes. However, with 24-hour coverage and an abundance of news apps, no news is more likely to mean global disaster pushing humanity to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, there’s a lot of news going on. Most of it bad, but bad news is good news (it’s a new phrase I’m testing). Once upon a time, the word cybersecurity would rarely appear in a news article. Now, it’s popping up everywhere.

No one’s safe

In 2017, there were widespread ransomware attacks on major businesses and organisations. In the UK, the most memorable is probably the WannaCry attack on the NHS. So disruptive was this attack that operations were cancelled and hospitals across the country were left in a state of chaos. It could have been worse, apparently hackers can theoretically gain control of CT scans and give patients a hefty dose of radiation. I asked a medical friend about the possibility of this resulting in superpowers. She said the more likely scenario would be burns, sickness or death, because it’s the role of science to make everything 33% more boring.

With the various ransomware attacks, data thefts and malware outbreaks, 2017 saw a spike in cybercrime and subsequently news reports on the topic. It would be nice to think that it was a blip.

A whole bag of tricks

Alas, we are a mere third through the year (at the time of writing) and there have been numerous incidents recorded. Cyberattacks, data breaches and just general cyber mishaps have mounted up, forcing some industry experts to conclude that we are losing the war against cybercrime.

Fortunately, pesky ransomware attacks are showing a rapid decline. Unfortunately, cryptomining malware is on the up and as always, phishing is showing no sign of slowing down. Cybercrime techniques and the approach criminals take are always evolving. It seems as soon as the major companies build a patch to shore up a hole in their defences, criminals find another flaw to exploit.

It goes all the way to the top

Not only is every home and business at risk from rogue factions and lone criminals, but the notion of cyberwarfare is becoming more and more of a concern. As tensions rise and nations start bickering once again, we have seen evidence of minor cyberattacks and disinformation dissemination (also the name of my prog rock album). A relatively simple piece of ransomware crippled the NHS for some time. Imagine the damage a well-coordinated, government backed attack could do.

A sign of the times?

Why now? Why are we seeing an influx of attacks? Have recent attacks emboldened cybercriminals, or attracted more to the dark arts? Is it a generational thing, in the sense that those with the skills to coordinate attacks have come of age?

Well, like everything, the answer is complicated. In fact, there are many answers. The rise in popularity in cryptocurrencies is one aspect. These practically untraceable currencies are highly sought after by criminals for obvious reasons. Not only does it mitigate the risk of getting caught, there are also a number of cheap and readily available programs that allow people to get started in cryptocurrency related crime, which means you don’t necessarily need specialist knowledge.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily the case that cybercrime and cyberattacks are increasing. There have always been peaks and troughs. DDoS attacks have been going for years. Malware and phishing attempts are almost archaic. Whilst we may currently be in the middle of a peak, the threats to cybersecurity have always been there. However, it’s these sudden big hits against large corporations and brands that’s made the problem seem bigger than ever. Attacks finally became ‘newsworthy’.

Wi-Fi enabled everything

And then there’s the obvious. We are currently more connected than we have ever been. Everyday objects are now coming with Wi-Fi availability. These IoT (Internet of Things) devices, are adding to the chain of connectivity (my second, less successful prog rock album). There is an argument to say that these devices are making networks less secure. They’re also leading to fantastic stories, such as a major casino that was hacked via a Wi-Fi enabled aquarium thermostat. I’ll say again: a major casino was hacked by a Wi-Fi enabled aquarium thermostat.

Everything is connected with everything else at all times. A relative of mine has a home hub with Wi-Fi light bulbs (yes, I know), so lives under the constant threat of hackers turning the lights off, causing him to bump into furniture, which would be both hilarious and tragic. We have come to rely on networks, servers, datacentres and generally ‘the Internet’ for just about everything. If we’re honest with ourselves, the majority of us don’t have the most stringent security practices.

Cybercrime is going nowhere

Put the above two paragraphs together and we’ve got a treasure trove of potential. Hackers can take multiple routes to sensitive information, often at very little cost or effort. With smart devices becoming more and more like pocket computers, they can be used to greater effect.

For better or worse, we are living our lives through technology. We are past the point of no return. We have walked a path down which there is no going back. It is one that will no doubt lead to more technological wonders, but it is also strewn with the gnarled and precarious roots of cybercrime and privacy loss. Pretentious imagery aside, it is an inescapable fact. The more technology becomes integrated with our everyday lives and the more sophisticated it becomes; the more people will attempt to exploit it.

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