A group of cybersecurity experts from around the world — including from companies like Microsoft and Okta — have teamed to help organizations fight COVID-19 related hacking and phishing attacks.
The restricted-invite COVID-19 Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI) League consists of cyberthreat intelligence experts, incident responders, and other security experts experienced at detecting, responding, and neutralizing threats.
Initially, at least, league members will prioritize efforts on helping hospitals and healthcare facilities fend off ransomware and other threats from attackers seeing to exploit the general mayhem triggered by the COVID-19 health crisis. In recent weeks, security researchers have reported a surge in attacks — especially phishing — targeted at a broad set of organizations.
But the COVID-19 CTI League’s mission is broader than helping just healthcare entities. It will also work to neutralize other cyberthreats looking to exploit the current pandemic, according to a brief description on the group’s website.
The site identified the four individuals who launched the effort: Ohad Zaidenberg, lead cyber intelligence researcher at Israeli firm ClearSky Security; Nate Warfield and Chris Mills, security researchers at Microsoft; and Marc Rogers, vice president of security at Okta and head of security operations at DefCon.
“Attackers are using a mixture of old, reskinned, and relatively new malware to attack users during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rogers said. “Their diversity indicates a global reach and a wide variety of campaigns. In essence, we are looking at a cybercrime gold rush.”
Yet few details are currently publicly available on how exactly the volunteer community of security experts will actually help fight the surge in hacking and malicious activity.
Comments that Zaidenberg made to NBC News suggest the COVID-19 CTI League’s strategy, at least with regard to healthcare entities, is to use its collective strength to identify the vulnerabilities and strategies that attackers are exploiting in campaigns. They will then search for hospitals and medical facilities that are vulnerable to the exploits so they can address the issue before they get attacked. League members will also assist healthcare entities recover if they do get attacked.
“If some hospital gets attacked by some ransomware and wouldn’t be able to pay, people will die because they wouldn’t be able to get the medical services needed,” NBC quoted Zaidenberg as saying.
According to the NBC report, COVID-19 CTI League members will coordinate over Slack. What isn’t clear at the moment is whether the community members will use any kind of shared infrastructure — or systems belonging to the companies they work for — to hunt for new and emerging cyberthreats exploiting the crisis.
It is also not clear whether the league will engage in any kind of offensive cybersecurity exercises to take down infrastructure and systems that threat actors might be using to launch these attacks. A story in Reuters that quoted Rogers described the new community as leveraging their contacts within the Internet service provider community to “squash garden variety” phishing attacks and financial scams related to COVID-19. Whether those kinds of actions would need coordination with law enforcement and other entities is not clear.
“To be really meaningful, the security community will have to continue to work together, cooperate, share resources, and defend critical organizations,” says Atif Mushtaq, CEO and founder at SlashNext. “This would require cooperation and support from corporations, executives, employees, white hat hackers, coders, researchers” and others, he says.
Apurva Kumar, staff security intelligence engineer at Lookout, says community efforts like the COVID-19 CTI League is what is needed to address opportunistic cyberattacks during a global crisis. “I suspect that this will be a meaningful initiative,” she says. “There are already many private information-sharing initiatives that exist as email lists for the purpose of identifying emerging threats in various industries.”
Often competitors are happy to work with each other privately for the greater good. Lookout, for instance, could contribute to an effort like the COVID-19 CTI League, Kumar says. “Lookout Phishing AI is already actively engaging with the cybersecurity community and with the many major brands that are frequently targeted in phishing attacks to help identify new and emerging threats as fast as they are created,” she says.
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio