Covid-19 pandemic has increased vulnerability to cyber attacks, UAE's head of cyber security says

Infection rate could be much higher when working remotely since a network of personal computers could be infected in a single click

Cybersecurity firms in the UAE have reacted to a major leak of patient information held by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. EPA
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The Covid-19 pandemic has increased users' vulnerability to cyber attacks as more people work remotely and stay online for longer, a senior UAE government official said.

“Lately, we are working from home or from remote locations … more people are staying online and it could give more space to cyber criminals,” Mohamed Al-Kuwaiti, head of cyber security for the UAE government, told an online seminar on Wednesday.

“There is also an analogy … just like any biological pandemic, users have to quarantine the compromised network, isolate all platforms linked to it and immediately find the root cause in case of a cyber attack,” Mr Al-Kuwaiti added.

Remote working increases the vulnerability of companies' IT networks as it can lead to thousands of personal computers being infected with a single click, he said.

The seminar was organised by the Embassy of Italy in the UAE, in collaboration with Khalifa University and the Dubai Future Foundation.

Consumers and businesses in the UAE suffered more than 600,000 phishing attacks at the peak of the Covid-19 movement restrictions, according to findings by Kaspersky.

From April to the end of June, more than 2.57 million phishing attacks were detected across the Middle East, the cyber security company said.

“Covid-19 has propelled work-from-home culture and dependence on smart tools to stay connected with colleagues and clients. It means our networks are stressed with huge amount of data,” said Eleonara Faina, director general of the Italian Association for the Information and Communication Technology sector.

“The wider usage and roll-out of 5G networks will add to the load and availability of more sensitive data on networks. We need to work with different governments and stakeholders to protect citizens as well as businesses data,” Ms Faina said.

The average cost of a data breach in the UAE and Saudi Arabia rose 12.9 per cent year-on-year to $5.9 million in 2019, according to a report by IBM Security. This is second only to the US, which has the highest total average cost per data breach at $8.19m.

Industry experts said the increased use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict attacks could be a potent tool in fending off cyber attacks.

“As cybersecurity incidents and crimes are on the rise, so is the role of AI and ML to predict, protect and respond,” said Salvatore Fiorillo, senior consultant at Dubai Electronic Security Centre.

“Right now, the higher utilisation of AI is for detection than prediction and response. We aim to improve prediction by up to 50 per cent in 12 months.”

Nearly 69 per cent of chief executives believe AI will be required to respond to cyber attacks, while 80 per cent of executives in the telecoms industry believe they will need to depend on AI in cybersecurity, Mr Fiorillo said, citing figures from a Forbes report.