The underworld of the internet: The UAE’s struggle with cybersecurity

As UAE residents become increasingly tech-savvy, they are also becoming more at risk of cyber-attackers, who steal and torment to their hearts' content.

Mohammad Amin Hasbini, senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, speaks about cyber security. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Cyberattacks are rampant in the UAE, the second most targeted in the Middle East last year. With so many children online from an early age, parents must ensure they remain protected from bullying and manipulation.

Every day, the UAE comes under attack in ways that many of us never see and the youngest and most vulnerable are targets.

Despite the country’s relatively small population, it was the second most attacked Middle East country online last year, a new survey shows.

At blame is the proliferation of devices that now form an inseparable part of our daily lives, says Mohammad Amin Hasbini, a senior security researcher with the software provider Kaspersky Lab, who conducted the survey with B2B International.

“As you know, we are all using multiple devices,” says Mr Hasbini. “Every one of us now has at least five devices at home.

“Some of the statistics mention that over 60 per cent of children above 3 to 4 years old have smartphones.”

Children, he says, have better access to smartphones than laptops and computers because they are portable and because parents like to be able to contact their children at all times.

“We are living in an advanced society and internet penetration and fast internet services are available to everyone,” says Mr Hasbini.

“That’s another indication that we need to follow up on what is happening, and we need to follow up on our children because threats are there and we need to act on them.”

But it is not just children who are naive when it comes to cyber security. The report also found that more than half of UAE respondents use free public Wi-Fi, with only 31 per cent of them taking precautions.

This is particularly lax, given that 2.5 million of the attacks last year were network attacks, which Mr Hasbini says make users vulnerable to “script kiddies”.

These are amateurs who download and run scripts developed by other programmers to attack websites and people, redirecting them to malicious websites, stealing information and generally causing havoc.

Meanwhile, nine in 10 people said they trusted computers and smartphones to store corporate, personal and financial data, while 42 per cent used unsafe methods to store passwords.

This haphazard approach puts users at risk of phishing, where “bad emails” contain links to malicious websites.

These mimic popular websites and lure users into entering their usernames and passwords, which criminals can then use on the real websites.

These lures can be sent through SMS, email, social networking sites and any other form of contact. “These are very active and very dynamic,” says Mr Hasbini, and “very difficult to monitor and detect”.

Another type of attack that is on the rise is ransomware: malicious files that encrypt the documents and files on people’s computers so they cannot access them.

Given how much information people store on their computers and devices, most are likely to pay a ransom to recover these files, says Mr Hasbini.

Some ransoms may be set as high as €1,500 (Dh6,035) and unless people have good security, they may have no other way to recover their files.

Kaspersky detects and analyses 325,000 malicious files every day. But it is not just computers that are at risk. The company detects 28,000 unique files a month just for the Android operating system.

“You receive a link via SMS on your device,” Mr Hasbini says. “This link then installs a certain application that starts monitoring all your traffic, stealing all your photos, all your data, all your passwords, and then these will be used in many bad activities.”

Perhaps, to those without children, a more ominous threat is the risk of financial attack. Many people use smartphones to access banking and government services, and even those who are familiar with financial threats are at risk.

“Whether it’s PayPal accounts or Amazon usernames and passwords, we see people just shipping from Amazon to new addresses,” Mr Hasbini says.

“We’ve actually seen hackers doing full money transfers to Swift accounts; from one banking account to another and the amounts are usually not low.

“When you’re talking about a bank transfer, the limit that the bank imposes is very, very high and this will empty your account in just two minutes.”

Perhaps, especially in the UAE, where privacy is held in high regard, the most worrying new trend is the rising use of software to spy on people through their webcams.

Last year, more than 2,000 women were monitored by criminals using software called Blackshades, which allows them to watch people, invade their cameras and take screenshots and videos that they later use to blackmail or intimidate.

This is made even more sordid by the strong presence of the underground internet, which Mr Hasbini says can be used to completely protect cyber criminals’ identities.

The Tor network was made notorious after the shutdown of Silk Road, a lawless platform where people sold drugs, assassination services and everything in between.

Tor is also used by the general public who hope to access websites that are banned or blocked in certain countries.

While this can be harmless at times, Mr Hasbini says it can lead users down a dark path to the hidden internet.

“You cannot see with whom you are dealing and even though law enforcement could track you on the real internet, they cannot track people on the underground network,” he says.

With crypto-currencies gaining momentum, people can also pay for such services using bitcoins, making them even harder to trace.

Another survey, called Children Online, found almost 70 per cent of those using Kaspersky Lab’s Parental Control technologies encountered “inappropriate or dangerous content” online.

More than a fifth visited websites dedicated to gambling, a sixth landed on websites featuring weapons, 8 per cent encountered drugs and alcohol, and just under a quarter were exposed to violence. Meanwhile, just 20 per cent of parents took measures to protect their family members from online threats.

This is not enough, Mr Hasbini says.

“We are living in the UAE and we are living in an advanced society and parents need to follow up and be aware of the threats.

“We need more awareness on how to deal with online threats, because it’s the internet and we don’t know who is hiding behind the internet.” Sometimes, those hiding behind the web are people we know in real life.

The Kaspersky survey found that two fifths of parents worry about cyber bullies, and just under half intervened to stop their child from being bullied.

But only 29 per cent of cyber bullying cases continued beyond the internet into real life.

Mr Hasbini says the consequences of cyber bullying can be severe.

“Amanda Todd was 15 years old and she was cyber bullied so hard and blackmailed for about $5,000 (Dh18,300). Then she couldn’t stand it – most children are afraid just to tell their parents what’s going on – and she actually committed suicide.”

Dr Samineh Shaheem, founder of Bolt Down on Bullying, believes cyber bullying has opened up a whole new world of concerns for parents.

“Previously, when we didn’t have to deal with the internet, at least when our children were safe at home with us. We thought they were safe at home,” Dr Shaheem says. “Now our child might be safe at home but with a device in their hand, they have access to this entire world, which might be unsafe, and danger and harm might be coming to them.”

Dr Shaheem says although people always ask her for statistics about the number of cases of extreme cyber-bullying in the UAE, her answer remains the same: “One child is one child too many.”

“No child should undergo such horrible treatment to the point in which they consider killing themselves,” she says.

“Cyber bullying and bullying is not just about arguments and disagreements, or joking or banter or teasing.

“We’re talking about psychological turmoil that is so devastating that the person can’t wake up any more – the person wishes that the world would open up and swallow them and that they would disappear forever.”

More than four fifths of children have access to devices and almost three in five secondary school kids report being cyber bullied, Dr Shaheem says. “The worst part of these numbers is that 98 per cent of these incidents go unreported,” she says.

Considering that cyber bullying victims are more susceptible to low self-esteem and thoughts of suicide, she says this is a huge problem. And it is made easier for bullies because they do not have to witness the repercussions.

Although the internet does provide, as she says, a wonderful wealth of experience, entertainment and educational resources, users must not turn a blind eye to the ever-present dangers.

“The worst part about cyber bullying is that the bullies are often anonymous, so you can’t see me, I can’t see you. I can’t see the damage that I’m inflicting on you.

“These kinds of experiences carry on longitudinally throughout a lifetime, so if you don’t deal with victims and the bullies in the schools they come into our workplaces, they marry us, and we have to deal with them in relationships.”