Over 300 cybersecurity experts in 35 countries are pooling their skills to take on hackers who are exploiting the public’s fear of COVID-19 to launch new criminal schemes.

Called the COVID-19 CTI League, for Cyber Threat Intelligence, the group includes professionals in senior positions at such major companies as Microsoft Corp and Amazon, reported Reuters.

“One of four initial managers of the effort, Marc Rogers, said the top priority would be working to combat hacks against medical facilities and other frontline responders to the pandemic,” according to Reuters.

The group is already working on hacks of health organizations.

Another founder, Ohad Zaidenberg, lead cyber intelligence researcher at ClearSky Cyber Security, said members were alerted by the growing activity of  hackers as the disease spread globally, according to SDx Central.  

“Since the coronavirus crisis came out, I started to notice more and more hackers use it to gain profit,” Zaidenberg told SDxCentral.

“When the pandemic became a global crisis, I understood these malicious activities can cause deaths. I thought that we, the cyber threat intelligence community, should stop sitting on the fence and volunteer to help the medical sector in its most challenging and sensitive time.”

A growing concern is hackers who lure anxious readers onto websites that seem to be offering information on COVID-19 but only as a ruse. Phishing messages try to induce recipients to enter passwords or other sensitive information on websites controlled by the attackers, who use the data to take control of bank, email, or other accounts.

The group is “using its web of contacts in internet infrastructure providers to squash garden-variety phishing attacks and another financial crime that is using the fear of COVID-19 or the desire for information on it to trick regular internet users,” said Reuters.

“I’ve never seen this volume of phishing,” Rogers said in an interview. “I am literally seeing phishing messages in every language known to man.”

Unit 42, the Palo Alto Networks threat intelligence team, told SDx that over the past few weeks more than 100,000 of domains have been registered containing terms like “covid,” “virus,” and “corona.”

While not all are malicious, “all of them should be treated as suspect,” wrote Ryan Olson, VP of threat intelligence at Unit 42 in a threat briefing.

“Whether they claim to have information, a testing kit, or a cure, the fact that the website didn’t exist until the pandemic became news should make you very skeptical of their validity.”

VMware Carbon Black says masquerading is one of the biggest cyber threats associated with the pandemic.

“Cybercriminals are now most commonly masquerading fake VPNs, remote meeting software, and mobile apps,” according to its latest Technical Analysis.

Digital surveillance of people’s activities is key to tracking the spread of COVID-19. But privacy experts are expressing fear of what this could lead to once the pandemic is under control.

The New York Times wrote, “As countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even turning security agency technologies on their own civilians.”

“We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan.

Privacy is being weighed against other considerations.

“We need to have a framework that would allow companies and public authorities to cooperate, to enable proper response for the public good,” Mila Romanoff, data and governance lead for United Nations Global Pulse, told The New York Times.

To reduce the risk that COVID-19 surveillance efforts might violate people’s privacy, she said, governments and companies should limit the collection and use of data to only what is needed. “The challenge is,” she added, “how much data is enough?”

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report

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