Coronavirus: Its Four Most Prevalent Cyber Threats

With more countries taking measures to contain the coronavirus and more organizations asking employees to work remotely from home whenever possible, the digitalization of the workplace is accelerating prematurely.

Organizations, depending on size and use case, leverage proven technologies such as enterprise VPN and Remote Desk Protocol (RDP) to provide secure remote access to sensitive resources and internal applications.

Less than a month ago the industry recovered from a period of turmoil during which multiple vulnerabilities in enterprise VPN products from Pulse Secure, Fortinet, Palo Alto, and Citrix were exploited in the wild during attack campaigns by malicious actors and nation states alike.

RDP requires special care and specific considerations when used for remote access. RDP has been for the most part of 2019, and continues to be, by a fair margin, the most important attack vector for ransomware.

The second most important cause of ransomware infections is phishing. In a period of fear and doubt, scams are thriving and phishing attacks leveraging the coronavirus have not been lacking.

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Disinformation and fake news surrounding the coronavirus does not only drive fear and doubt among the people but becomes a weapon of influence and political bias. The digitalization of the press and the social media penetration rate means that information, good and bad, true and fake, is spreading faster and further than ever. A platform on steroids for weaponizing disinformation.

While, according to most current reports, only human bots have been architecting fake news, automated machine bots have found their lucrative leverage of the coronavirus through the use of spam bots performing search engine optimization for dubious pharmaceutical products and online drug stores.

Accelerated Digitalization

Remote Work

On Monday, March 2, 2020, 9to5Google reported that a Googler in Dublin came down with flu-like symptoms. A week earlier, an employee in Zurich tested positive for the coronavirus. As a precaution, Google instructed its Dublin staff to work from home on Tuesday, March 3. The Dublin office serves as Google’s European headquarters and is home to 8,000 employees. For Google, that Tuesday served as a test and case study for other sites globally: can it perform at full capacity for an extended period?

That same Monday, Twitter asked its entire global workforce of 5,000 people to work from home in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. Working from home is mandatory for Twitter employees based in Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea due in part to government restrictions. Twitter also announced they are working to ensure internal meetings, all hands, and other important tasks are optimized for remote participation. One day earlier, on Sunday, March 1, Twitter announced the suspension of all non-critical company travel and events. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey was scheduled to speak at an upcoming SXSW conference in Austin, Texas–a conference that later would be canceled by city officials over fears about the rapid spread of coronavirus–but would apparently not make an appearance. The Twitter policy took effect immediately and continues until the World Health Organization (WHO) or Centers of Disease Control (CDC) deem it appropriate to step back from pandemic precautionary measures.

After confirming one of its Seattle-based employees tested positive for COVID-19, Amazon asked all of its 50,000 Seattle-area employees who can do their jobs from home to do so until the end of March. Microsoft issued a similar guidance on Wednesday, March 4, asking employees to work from home for at least the next three weeks.

On Friday, March 6, Apple asked its employees at its Silicon Valley headquarters to work from home if possible as a precaution. Officials of Santa Clara County, where Apple’s 12,000 person campus is located, had earlier asked large companies to consider measures to limit close contact. Apple also asked employees in the Seattle area to consider working from home.

Online Collaboration and Virtual Events

On February 28, 2020, after close consultation with their partner in the game development industry and the community around the world, Google made the difficult decision to postpone the Game Developers Conference that was slated for March 16-20. The conference is now supposed to take place over the summer while a separate Google ‘digital experience’ will allow the company to share important announcements in the short-term.

Google is also moving its North American version of Cloud Next to an all-digital experience. The event dates remain unchanged but it will now be a “free, global, digital-first, multi-day event” and will include online streaming of keynotes, breakout sessions, interactive learning sessions, and a live Q&A feature with Google employees.

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Microsoft, Dell Technologies, Red Hat, and Nvidia are among other vendors that have to alter upcoming mega-events due to health concerns tied to the growing spread of the coronavirus. Details for the events are still being worked out but are expected to follow Google’s model. The virtualized event line-up for the next couple of months includes:

  • Microsoft’s MVP Global Summit initially set to begin March 16 in Redmond, Washington;
  • Nvidia’s GTC 2020 event originally scheduled for March 22 in San Jose, California;
  • Adobe Summit that was originally scheduled for end of March in Las Vegas;
  • Red Hat Summit initially scheduled for April 27 in San Francisco; and
  • Dell Technologies World originally scheduled for May 4 in Las Vegas.

On February 26, Zoom announced that in the last 30 days alone, the average downloads of its video communications software were up 90% compared to the prior 30-day period. Their platform saw a 17% increase in user sessions per day and a 3% increase in average session length. The company has added more new active users so far in 2020 than it did throughout all of 2019, with 3.5 times more monthly active users in 2020. And that announcement came before the coronavirus outbreak became as pronounced in the U.S. as it was in other countries like China and Italy, and before high tech companies started announcing renewed policies for remote work and online collaboration.

Cisco Webex, the conference service that provides a default-free plan supporting up to 50 participants per meeting, with meeting times limited to 40 minutes and online recording storage up to 1GB, is now offering, in this time of need, free 90-day licenses without time restrictions and support for up to 100 participants for businesses who are not Webex customers. Cisco also announced the expansion of their worldwide meeting capacity, scaling up further in the United States and Europe, working with non-governmental organizations to enable schools, while partnering closely with their customers who are rapidly scaling up their work from home efforts.

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The ZDNet special feature on free video conferencing also reports that Google isn’t offering free conferencing services to new users but is rolling out free access to its advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all its G Suite customers. This includes larger meetings for up to 250 participants per call, live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain, and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive. These features will be available at no additional cost until July 1, 2020.

LogMeIn, another experienced video conferencing company that usually comes with a 14-day free trial, now provides critical front-line service providers, including eligible healthcare providers, educational institutions, municipalities, and non-profit organizations, as well as current LogMeIn customers with free, organization-wide use of many LogMeIn products for three months through the availability of its Emergency Remote Work Kits.

Microsoft is offering a new six-month Office 365 E1 trial offer that includes full meetings, collaboration, and workflow capabilities and will enable all global customers to start using Teams immediately.

Pulse Secure offers temporary licenses for its Pulse Connect Secure product under its Pulse Cares program. The limited period offer enables secure remote and mobile access from any device to enterprise services and applications in the data center and cloud until May 31, 2020.

Online Education

Besides the industry, education is also evaluating its options to move to remote or online learning. As COVID-19 spreads, health officials are calling for fewer public gatherings, which forces many institutions and organizations to explore online activities. For school officials across the world, there is little time to prepare. The United Nations recently warned that school closures in thirteen countries are disrupting the education of 290.5 million students globally, a number without precedent. The UNESCO Director-General said that, “the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.” UNESCO is providing immediate support to countries, including solutions for inclusive distance learning.

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Only two days after the UNESCO statement,  Stanford announced that its final two weeks of the winter quarter, beginning Monday, March 9, will not meet in person in order to deal with the outbreak; where feasible,  classes will move online. Winter quarter final exams that were scheduled will need to be provided in take-home format. Stanford might well be one of the better-equipped universities to implement a swift move to remote education and leverage its experience with Stanford Online.

Earlier that Friday, March 6, the University of Washington told its 50,000 students that courses would move online on Monday. Seattle University (7,000 students) and the Seattle campus of Boston’s Northeastern University have also moved to online courses. Other schools and universities, currently spared from infections, are taking this same week as an opportunity for testing online and virtual classes.

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are not new. As early as 2006, MIT, later joined by other high profile universities, started experimenting with online courses. Harvard, MIT, Microsoft, Stanford, and other top universities have been providing open, self-paced educational content for almost a decade now. Before the coronavirus, the MOOC market size was estimated at $4 billon in 2018 and demand expected to grow at a CAGR of 33.6% during the period of 2019 to 2025.

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The Threat Landscape

The attack surface is changing and expanding as many organizations move to online and digital experiences as a result of the measures taken to inhibit the spread of COVID-19.

While transforming, organizations are exposing themselves to more potential threats since they are forced to do so in a limited and less convenient timeframe. These changes are expected to increase the attack surface of organizations as they implement quick and often ‘temporary that become permanent’ solutions to maintain a certain level of productivity. Most organizations will not have had time to adapt their risk models accordingly. Assessing and understanding the impact of new services or solutions will, in most cases, be subjacent to providing a service at any cost. It is, rolling out new services hastily with emphasis on access and usability in favor of security.

Below are, in my opinion, the three most immediate threats organizations face during these times of extreme measures.

Remote Access

Think about the (your) organization, which given a timeframe of only a few days, needs to provide a scalable remote work option for employees who were never expected to be working remotely before a pandemic forced them to. Did I mention the solution needs to be secure? For some, that might be obvious, but the emphasis in times of high need will be on providing the access without too many headaches for the user or an insurmountable flood of support tickets. So, secure, yes, unless it risks delaying the rollout or making the solution less usable.

One needs to decide on an easy-to-deploy and convenient access technology that enables the broadest amount of employees to perform their tasks remotely as much as possible. The obvious choices will be remote desktop (RDP) and enterprise VPN access solutions, directly binding the remote user with the organization’s network and servers.

While RDP can be a very effective tool to let users quickly connect to a remote desktop and perform their daily tasks from home, threat actors have been known to leverage RDP as an attack vector for ransomware campaigns. It gained traction in 2018 and by Q1 of 2019, it was by far the most preferred infection vector for ransomware.

(Image source: Coveware)

On cybercrime marketplaces, RDP credentials remain inexpensive as criminals can easily harvest them through brute-force attacks. The going price for RDP credentials was $20 a piece on darknet marketplaces as of September 2019.

It should be clear by now that strong passwords or some form of multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an absolute requirement when exposing remote desktop access for home workers. It is advisable to at least have all employees reset their password as they connect remotely and force them to choose a new password that complies with a strong password complexity guidelines. Employees might have been reusing their passwords for one or more online services–services that might have fallen victim to a breach, resulting in stolen customer credentials traded on the underground marketplace. Bad actors will happily leverage these breach batches for performing more efficient credential stuffing attacks against organizations’ exposed services.

The second most prevailing attack vector for ransomware is Phishing, a vector which will not pass on an opportunity as big as the fear and concern caused by a fast spreading virus. Phishing will be discussed in its own paragraph below, but for now, between RDP and Phishing, 94% of ransomware infection causes are covered!

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BlueKeep, an exploit which leveraged a vulnerability in RDP and affected most Microsoft Windows versions, and which was responsibly disclosed and provided with a timely fix, became the object of a mass-hacking campaign in November 2019. Microsoft had warned this might happen and urged users to patch their systems already back in May 2019. The attack campaign was not a big hit, but one of the consequences of the attacks was the assessment of the attack surface by researchers, which confirmed 750,000 systems had RDP exposed to the internet AND were vulnerable to BlueKeep. Not an insignificant number of systems that were left unpatched between May and September 2019…

Citrix, the original inventors of RDP, have been the subject of many controversies in the beginning of this year regarding their Application Delivery Controller and Gateway products. The Citrix products provide application-aware traffic management and secure remote access. A vulnerability published on December 17, 2019 left access gateways exposed to unauthenticated remote code execution attacks and remote access to a company’s protected network and resources.

According to researchers, at the time, over 80,000 organizations were exposed and vulnerable to remote attacks through CVE-2019-19781. Citrix  released a set of measures but did not have a fix available until one month later. Between January 9 and 17, it was basically open season on Citrix Gateways as honeypots from multiple researchers (Bad Packets and Rapid7, amongst others) were registering in the wild attack campaigns. Bad Packets assessed the number of exposed endpoints vulnerable to CVE-2019-19781 to be at least 25,000. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency published an alert relating to this vulnerability on January 31, 2020 urging people to secure their installations.

On January 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned about continued exploitation of a Pulse Secure VPN vulnerability CVE-2019-11510. A few months earlier, in October 2019, the NSA and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned of multiple state-sponsored groups exploiting enterprise VPN flaws. Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups had been exploiting recently disclosed VPN vulnerabilities in enterprise VPN products from Fortinet, Palo Alto Networks, and Pulse Secure. Both NCSC and NSA intelligence agencies confirmed APT groups targeted several sectors, including military, government, academic, business and healthcare.

Whether your organization is using or planning on deploying remote desktop access or enterprise VPN solutions, whatever you do, make sure you are running the latest software before exposing the service to the internet. Failing to do so will re-open the hunting season on remote access solutions!

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No major global event goes without malicious actors exploiting it for Phishing. Coronavirus is, in this respect, no different than other events. Fear and a continuous need for up-to-date information provides a great breeding ground for abuse. A lot of phishing campaigns are luring people with the promise of important or breaking information on COVID-19, enticing them to click malicious links or open infected attachments. In the UK alone, coronavirus scams costed victims over £800k Pound sterling (the equivalent of nearly $1M USD) in the course of one month (February 2020).

By the end of January, as the global death toll of the coronavirus reached 213 and more than 9,000 cases were reported, malicious actors started leveraging public fear to spread the notorious Emotet malware. Emotet, first detected in 2014, is a banking trojan that primarily spreads through malspam (spam emails) and attempts to sneak into computers to steal sensitive and private information. Emotet versions have evolved over time into a pervasive delivery platform for other malware including banking trojans.

Limited to Japan, these first coronavirus phishing scams discovered by IBM X-Force and Kaspersky warn about infected patients being reported in the victim’s local area. The messages, in Japanese, urge victims to open a Word document containing malicious code. The sample message below, one of three samples documented by IBM X-Force, translates as:

Jurisdiction tsusho / facility related disability welfare service provider We become indebted to. Patients were reported about the new type of coronavirus-related pneumonia, mainly in Takeshi, China. Patients have been reported in Tottori Prefecture in Japan, Therefore, please check the attached notice, Thank you for your infection prevention measures. In parallel, we are preparing to publish on the Wamnet Kyoto page.

**************** Kyoto Prefectural Yamashiro Minami Public Health Center welfare room (in charge: Umino) 18-1 Kizu Ueto, Kizugawa City, Kyoto Prefecture 619-0214, Japan Telephone: 0774-72-0979 FAX: 0774-72-8412 ****************

(Image source: IBM X-Force)

The different samples each target a different Japanese prefecture with Gifu, Osoka, and Tottori reported as actively exploited. The customized messages underlining the local nature of this phishing attack and also increase the success ratio as people feel more concerned with a message that is close to them.

On February 5th, Sophos reported a global phishing scam exploiting the coronavirus. The email carries the logo of the WHO and exhibits the usual spelling and grammatical mistakes that should act as indicators to victims that this message is not what it seems.

(Image source: Sophos)

The link embedded in the message brings users to a compromised music site using insecure HTTP and shows a fake WHO page with a popup form asking for email verification and password. Upon submitting credentials, users are redirected to the real WHO site. A very basic attempt at stealing credentials, brimmed with red flags.

On February 25th, MailGuard reported a widespread email scam in Australia leveraging the coronavirus fear. The malicious emails are signed with “Dr Li Wei” and are titled “CORONA-VIRUS AFFECTED COMPANY STAFF.” The sender of the emails is from a freshly registered domain, likely created for the sole purpose of the scam. The message urges victims to open the attached file which allegedly would contain pictures, countries, names, and companies of COVID-19 infected people as of February 22, 2020.

(Image source: MailGuard)

Once again, recipients of the above message should be able to spot the fact that the email contains several grammatical mistakes, giving away its malicious nature. You’d think by now, bad guys would have discovered grammatic and spell checkers and take a little more care in crafting their messages. Luckily for us, this is still mostly not the case.

On March 5th, Check Point announced that over 4,000 coronavirus-related domains had been registered since the beginning of 2020. Of the 4,000 new domains, 3% were found to be malicious and an additional 5% perceived as suspicious. The malicious or suspicious domain names are typically misspelled versions of a legitimate domain name or use popular keywords such as ‘corona’ and ‘covid.’ This technique is known as typosquatting. Compared to other domains registered during the same period, the coronavirus related domains are 50% more likely to be malicious and with a higher probability than recent seasonal themes such as Valentine’s day.

(Image source: Check Point)

Needles to say, many of the previously mentioned domains will eventually end up in phishing attempts.

Bad Robots

While automated content generation by machines for disinformation and fake news campaigns are yet to be reported, automated (machine) bots are already claiming a fair amount of the malicious activity surrounding the coronavirus in the form of spam bots. Imperva recently discovered pharmaceutical spam campaigns performed by bots thriving on the need for information about the virus.

The most popular and obvious technique is comment spamming. Bots inject popular and often searched keywords into comments on spam and drug-selling sites to increase the visibility and ranking of the site in search results. ‘Coronavirus’ is a highly trending search term in Google (see image below), and using it on a page will rank that page and the site favorably in search algorithms – a practice which is generally referred to as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

(Image source: Google)

A second application of comment spamming is leveraging popular news and blog sites that attract a lot of readers and placing content with click-bait in the close vicinity of the usual keyword, such as ‘coronavirus’ in the example below. The click-bait URLs guide readers to dubious online stores in an attempt to grow their sales.

(Image source:

An Infodemic

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2020. An ‘infodemic’ that undermines public trust in information at a time when transparency is essential. Misinformation and fake news proliferate at all levels and anything is fair game in the information wars.

For example, police departments are leveraging the fear of coronavirus infection in an effort to make drug arrests. The Tavares Police Department in Florida and the Merrill Police Department in Wisconsin took to social media offering to test methamphetamine and other drugs for contamination with coronavirus. “Bring it by our station and we will test your batch within minutes!” Tavares Police Department said in a Facebook post depicted below, “If you’re not comfortable going into an office setting, please request any officer and they’ll test your Meth in the privacy of your home. Please spread the word! We are here for you!”

Dean Koontz predicted the outbreak of a virus named ‘Wuhan-400’, developed in the RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan, in his novel ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ written in 1981. Source:

Snopes debunked the Dean Koontz myth here and discovered that when the book was published in 1981, the biological weapon was called ‘Gorki-400’ and Russian made, while by 2008 the virus had been renamed to ‘Wuhan-400’ and was Chinese sourced.

On Sunday, January 26, 2020, The Washington Times published an article with the headline, ‘Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.’

On February 1, 2020, the most influential Chinese military website published an article acknowledging the Wuhan coronavirus is man-made and accused the U.S. of creating the bioweapon against China.

In the meantime, a GOP senator keeps pushing the theory that the coronavirus is a leaked Chinese biological weapon gone wrong, despite multiple scientists debunking this theory that the virus would be a bioweapon gone wrong.

On March 4, 2020, the Chinese military website (again) headlined an article that translates as ‘”Patient Zero” found? US liar is pierced’ claiming that patient zero, discovered in Italy, was infected with the virus in Hawaii and had no history of contact with China. The article continues, and I paraphrase the quote translated from the website, that “because this patient does not have any Wuhan contact history, the Russian media believes that the US’s previous accusations against China are a lie which has now been pierced!”

On February 22, 2020, the Guardian published an article with the title ‘Coronavirus: US says Russia behind disinformation campaign.’ which quotes:

Experts said the coronavirus disinformation campaign has parallels with previous conspiracy theories traced to Moscow, including a KGB disinformation campaign in the 1980s that convinced many around the world that US scientists created the HIV virus that causes Aids.

Several thousand online accounts – previously identified for airing Russian-backed messages on major events such as the war in Syria, the Yellow Vest protests in France and Chile’s mass demonstrations – are posting “near identical” messages about the coronavirus, according to a report prepared for the state department’s Global Engagement Center and seen by AFP.

The accounts are run by humans, not bots, and post at similar times in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French. They can be linked back to Russian proxies, or carry messages similar to Russian-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, the report said.

“In this case, we were able to see their full disinformation ecosystem in effect, including state TV, proxy websites and thousands of false social media personas all pushing the same themes,” said Lea Gabrielle, the head of the Global Engagement Center, which is tasked with tracking and exposing propaganda and disinformation.

And further: Some accounts have falsely claimed the US is waging “economic war on China” and that the virus is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA.

In another part of the world, a Cyber pioneer asks: “Is the coronavirus the result of a cyberattack?” and continues “Those who know how to hack into financial bodies can also hack pharmaceutical companies and create a virus.”

On March 7th, whistleblowers and residents claimed that China’s message on the recovery from coronavirus is not what it seems. Caixin investigation has found that local companies and officials are fraudulently boosting electricity consumption and other metrics in order to meet the ‘back-to-work’ targets. As Beijing started checking Zhejiang businesses’ electricity consumption levels, district officials ordered the companies to start leaving their lights and machinery on all day to drive the number up. “They would rather waste a small amount of money on power than irritate local officials,” Caixan writes. Businesses also reportedly falsified staff attendance logs.

These a just a handful of examples demonstrating that disinformation can as entertaining as it can be leveraged by conspiracy theorists and in geopolitical warfare. The digitalization of press and the rate of penetration of social media in our daily lives means information is spreading much faster and way further than ever before, providing a fertile platform for weaponizing disinformation.

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Pascal Geenens

As the Director, Threat Intelligence for Radware, Pascal helps execute the company's thought leadership on today’s security threat landscape. Pascal brings over two decades of experience in many aspects of Information Technology and holds a degree in Civil Engineering from the Free University of Brussels. As part of the Radware Security Research team Pascal develops and maintains the IoT honeypots and actively researches IoT malware. Pascal discovered and reported on BrickerBot, did extensive research on Hajime and follows closely new developments of threats in the IoT space and the applications of AI in cyber security and hacking. Prior to Radware, Pascal was a consulting engineer for Juniper working with the largest EMEA cloud and service providers on their SDN/NFV and data center automation strategies. As an independent consultant, Pascal got skilled in several programming languages and designed industrial sensor networks, automated and developed PLC systems, and lead security infrastructure and software auditing projects. At the start of his career, he was a support engineer for IBM's Parallel System Support Program on AIX and a regular teacher and presenter at global IBM conferences on the topics of AIX kernel development and Perl scripting.

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