Cyber warriors on NATO’s eastern edge are warning that the growing number of people working from home globally due to the pandemic is increasing vulnerability to cyber attacks.
The Baltic state of Estonia hosts two cyber facilities for the Western military alliance — set up following a series of cyberattacks from neighbor Russia more than a decade ago.
“Large scale use of remote work has attracted spies, thieves, and thugs,” Jaak Tarien, head of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), told AFP in an interview.
The increased amount of information traveling between institutional servers and home networks is creating new challenges for employers.
“Tackling these new challenges is complicated and requires a lot of resources as well as a different kind of approach,” Tarien said.
“We are likely only scratching the surface in assessing the magnitude of malicious activities taking place in the Covid-era busy cyberspace.”
An EU-wide survey in September found that around a third of employees were working from home.
Boom in Online Courses
The concerns are echoed at NATO’s Cyber Range — a heavily-guarded facility protected by barbed wire in the center of the capital Tallinn run by Estonian defense forces.
The server rooms inside serve as a platform for NATO cybersecurity exercises and training.
“Specialists have set up the work infrastructure, but they cannot control the way people use their home internet or how secure it is,” said Mihkel Tikk, head of the Estonian defense ministry’s cyber policy department.
Tikk said the latest cyberattacks have targeted Estonia’s health sector and Mobile-ID — the mobile phone-based digital ID.
The coronavirus pandemic has also affected operations at the cyber facilities themselves, forcing the cancellation of offline exercises.
But the NATO Cyber Defense Center said the silver lining is the growing popularity of the cybersecurity courses it is putting online.
The online courses include “Fighting a Botnet Attack,” “Operational Cyber Threat Intelligence,” and “IT Systems Attack and Defense.”
There were 6,411 students by September 1 and the center is aiming for 10,000 by the end of 2020.
‘A Massive Mistake’
The Cyber Defense Center was set up following a series of cyberattacks of unprecedented sophistication on Estonian websites in 2007.
The Russian pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi later claimed responsibility.
These days, Estonia faces a “continuous flow of attacks” and repelling them requires constant work, Defense Minister Juri Luik told AFP.
But he said the country was in “a pretty good situation” since it has had time to learn from past experience.
“We have worked diligently to guarantee that the computer networks are difficult to break in and the communication is encrypted –- both military but also civilian communication.
“So I think it is relatively more difficult to harm Estonia than many other countries who perhaps are not so used to working via cyberspace and haven’t given too much attention to cyber defense,” he said.
The minister underlined that all this work would be for nothing without basic cyber hygiene, including password protection.
“This is extremely important and should be remembered — especially now that many people work from home via computer. “At home, you might let your guard down and that’s of course a massive mistake.”