• Cassandra He

A Different Type of Virus

While scientists worked nobly for a COVID cure, another threat was making itself apparent online.

American cyber firm Solarwinds was breached on a massive scale last year (Brendan McDermind/Reuters).

2020 was the year of science. As the pandemic raged on, news of medical studies and vaccine development flooded the headlines. But while scientists worked nobly for a COVID cure, another threat was making itself apparent online.


As areas shut down and people began to utilize online platforms more, the world entered a year of digital transactions, and with it came the cybersecurity threats.

What does a typical year look like for cybersecurity? Even before the pandemic hit, the US consistently topped the charts for the number and cost of cybersecurity breaches. Additionally, the healthcare industry has historically been at the top of the rankings for the highest cost per security breach each year (with an average loss of about $6.5 million annually), and this year was no different.


With the shutdown following the start of the pandemic, cybersecurity companies saw an increase in cybersecurity attacks as more and more of the population began to rely on online platforms for work and communication. Surprisingly, though, when just looking at the nominal rates of the average cost per breach, 2020 was comparatively better than 2019 (with a -1.5% net change in average total cost). However, according to IBM, while the overall average went down, for many companies with outdated cybersecurity systems, the cost of 2020’s breaches was much higher.


Unfortunately, the threat of digital attacks goes deeper than the typical security breaches. As COVID-19 vaccination begins to roll out, hackers have begun targeting multiple aspects of vaccine distribution. Especially as more and more of our personal information is put online (whether for medical records or vaccine registrations) Phishing attacks disguised as innocuous emails with information concerning COVID-19 vaccinations have begun to make their way into the general populace. At the time of writing this, McAfee, one of 2020’s top cybersecurity companies, has detected a total of over 1.7 million COVID-related attacks within the US alone.

Between phasing and hijacking, the vaccine pipeline has and will face serious cyber threats (Dado Ruvic/Reuters).

On the vaccine development side, cybersecurity is also becoming an issue, with Pfizer delivering a report of a cybersecurity attack in which data concerning the vaccine had been unlawfully accessed. Additionally, many organizations involved in the vaccine “cold chain” - the storage and transport of the vaccine - have been subject to phishing attacks as of late.


While this may all sound concerning—because it is—the situation is not entirely hopeless. As it stands, the technology needed to protect against these kinds of attacks exists.


The bigger issue, it seems, lies in the fact that many companies’ digital security systems are outdated or faulty.

Many experts push for a simple solution of merely staying more cautious online and ensuring all protective software is up-to-date.


Awareness of cybersecurity is on the rise. While scientists fight COVID, major tech companies are fighting a different kind of virus as the world enters an increasingly digital age. As companies become more vigilant about managing their online data and safety, 2021 might just be the year for cybersecurity


Cover: Maria Cramer/NYT

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