Cybersecurity/Trust | Digital Skills
May 12, 2020

Online safety and security during COVID-19

By ITU News

Cyberthreats are not new, but in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the risks to society, the economy, and to our children, have multiplied enormously.

Cybercriminals and other malign actors are using the COVID-19 crisis to launch social engineering attacks: individuals are facing online threats and harms from increased fraud, phishing, and extortion whilst ransomware attacks have compromised mission critical systems, such as governments, companies, media facilities, and even the United Nations, including the World Health Organization (WHO). Tech companies have seen a spike in phishing traffic of 300 per cent across their networks. Tens of millions of daily malware emails and COVID-19 related spam massages were detected by social media, such as Google in just one week.

Meanwhile, there has been an alarming increase in online child abuse, which has led to the doubling of suspected online child exploitation cases reported to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“I suspect we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, with many countries simply lacking the technical and human capacity to track the level of malicious content passing through their networks,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau at the fourth Digital Cooperation webinar on ‘Online Safety and Security during COVID19’.

“Can we envisage a future where we get the upper hand, or where we stamp out cybercrime and online abuse?” asked Director Bogdan-Martin.

Protecting vulnerable populations

“The negative impact on our digital safety and security affects everyone, in particular the most vulnerable, our children” said Fabrizio Hochschild, Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary General on Digital Cooperation.

“This is the time to do everything in our power to keep children safe online. The virus knows no borders. And online perpetrators respect no borders. Therefore, we need to work together across borders,” said Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden. “Making sure that the recommendations that have been developed are turned into concrete action, is one very good way to start.”

Her Majesty welcomed global efforts to protect children online, highlighting the Broadband Commission COVID Agenda for Action, the joint technical note on COVID-19 and the joint call for action to protect children during COVID-19 by several global leaders.

International collaboration

Protecting vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure from cyberthreats during the COVID-19 pandemic calls for proactive action by multi-stakeholder action, greater capacity building to reduce vulnerabilities in underserved areas, and cross border collaboration, agreed leaders assembled for the webinar.

Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol, highlighted the importance of monitoring the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on the cybercrime landscape, and advocated for investing in preventive educational campaigns and law enforcement activities to tackle increased cyber risks – in particular online child abuse.

“The right information at the right time can save lives,” said Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC). “This problem brings together the very actors we need to help improve global responses, so that children and vulnerable groups can be safe.”

Reasons for optimism

Despite the cybersecurity challenges that we are currently facing, some members of the panel noted reasons for optimism.

From the collection and exchange of vital health information to remote working and the use of various digital services to limit physical contact, “digital development has allowed us to cope with the crisis and provide timely responses in every face of its environment,” said H.E. Urmas Reinsalu, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Estonia.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity, coming out of COVID-19 over the coming months and years, to protect children more in the short term, triggering new levels of awareness, new levels of resources new levels of action to keep children safe online for the future,” said Howard Taylor, Executive Director of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.

Actions to limit cybercrime

Several concrete actions that have been implemented in response to the cyber risks surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic were presented to the group.

Mauritius, for example, has bolstered reporting systems, increased awareness campaigns launched by their Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and issued cybersecurity alerts to the public.

Mauritius is also updating guidelines and best practices on a regular basis, said Deepak Balgobin, the Minister of Information Technology, Communication and Innovation of Mauritius.

“It is important to have comprehensive measures to educate our citizens on how to respond to cyber threats,” he said

R.S. Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority, India, agreed: “Governments can use the opportunity while communicating about the virus and the spread of the disease, to flag the attention of people towards threats that lurk in cyberspace.”

Verizon is also working with their customers to quickly address challenges with child online safety for the children.

“We only have a usage today of roughly 25 per cent of the parental control in the network. That is why we doubled down in the last eight weeks enormously on the advocacy to all our 120 million consumers about how to turn on the parental control service,” said Hans Erik Vestberg, Chief Executive Officer, Verizon.

BitSight, meanwhile, have created a program to help reduce the cyber risk of critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and energy and electricity providers, by monitoring security issues and sharing information quickly.

More needs to be done

Panellists agreed that all stakeholders – from government to the private sector – have an important role to play in tackling this serious issue. But “more needs to be done”, said Under Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild.

“We’re only going to solve it to the extent we can work effectively together – cooperation between different stakeholder groups needs to be stepped up,” he urged.

The webinar brought more than 400 participants, representing government, policymakers, members of civil society and private sector companies to discuss specific security challenges that the world is facing during the COVID-19 crisis and the strategies that are being implemented to create safer and more secure access to digital service, as well as protecting younger generations from potential online threats.

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Online safety and security during COVID-19

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