Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 caused disruptions across the global economy, prompting an increase in the number and sophistication of cyberattacks. According to a poll of 800 chief audit executives conducted by the UK-based Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, 77% of respondents thought the war in Ukraine had elevated cybersecurity and data-security risks. Senior cybersecurity analysts have said the invasion has been accompanied by a sustained cyber-conflict, with a large number of attacks and threats launched since the start of the war.
On the day before Russia’s invasion, a wave of distributed denial-of-service attacks attributed to Russian hackers disabled Ukrainian government, military and bank websites. That same day, US and UK intelligence agencies warned that a Russian state-backed hacker group known as Sandworm had created a new malware called Cyclops Blink. US government officials announced in April of that year that they had disrupted the malware, but worries remain.
While cybersecurity officials say that Russia has primarily focused cyberattacks on Ukrainian companies and infrastructure, rather than on targets in the EU, the US or emerging markets, there are concerns the cyber-conflict could spill over. An example of this was seen in the February 2022 cyberattack on Viasat, a US satellite communications provider used by the Ukrainian military. EU, UK and US officials blamed Russia for the attack, which affected customers not only in Ukraine, but also throughout Europe.
The increased threat of cyberattacks builds on the already heightened cybersecurity environment triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. As financial transactions have increasingly migrated online since the outbreak of Covid-19, businesses have become targets for hackers. According to a 2022 report from security vendor SonicWall, ransomware attacks were up 105% in 2021, including a 1885% increase in attacks on government agencies, with health care (755%), education (152%) and retail (21%) entities also seeing a notable rise in breaches.
Indeed, the rapid adoption of digital solutions during the pandemic heightened cyberthreats to the education sector and emerging markets with large digital industries. This threat has continued into 2022. For example, leading Nigerian betting platform Bet9ja announced in April 2022 that its website had been hacked by the BlackCat group, a syndicate of Russian hackers not believed to be aligned with the state. This followed a ransomware attack on Bank Indonesia, the country’s central bank, in January 2022 that was ultimately unsuccessful in disrupting public services and did not result in critical data being leaked. Meanwhile, in February 2022 the website of television broadcaster CNN Philippines was shut down after a cyberattack while the network was hosting a presidential debate in the lead-up to the country’s May 2022 election.
Cryptocurrencies have provided similarly fertile ground for hackers around the world. A record $14bn in digital currencies was transferred to illegal addresses in 2021, according to blockchain data platform Chainalysis, up from $7.8bn in 2020.
With cyberattacks on the rise in recent years, several emerging markets have taken steps to bolster security. In late May 2022 Saudi Arabia’s National Cybersecurity Authority, a body that aims to develop and manage cyber-services, support communication mechanisms and enhance cybersecurity capacities, launched the National Portal for Cybersecurity Services. Once fully rolled out, all government agencies will be able to access the portal, which is expected to offer its services to more than 400 government entities by the close of 2022. The country’s approach to increasing its flexibility and readiness in order to neutralise attacks as they evolve could provide an example for others in the region.
Cybersecurity concerns remain, however. “The 2022 State of Email Security” report published by UK-headquartered IT security firm Mimecast found that six in 10 Saudi companies saw an increase in the number of email-based threats during the previous year. In another survey by the firm published in 2022, 68% of the 400 IT decision-makers surveyed in the Kingdom and the UAE have had to postpone digital transformation initiatives in response to cybersecurity concerns. As businesses go digital, attackers have more scope to target and compromise their systems.
The value of the Middle East’s cybersecurity market is projected to grow from $20.3bn in 2022 to $44.7bn in 2028. This is partly a reflection of the risks, as a study by research centre Ponemon Institute and IBM Security conducted in 2020 showed that data breaches result in an average corporate loss of $6.5m per organisation in the Middle East, which is significantly higher than the global average of $3.9m.
Smaller businesses with fewer resources to invest in cybersecurity mechanisms and tools face distinct online risks. For example, small businesses in Bahrain witnessed a 348% rise in cyberattacks during the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021, according to Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, which detected nearly 45,300 breaches in the first three months of 2022. To keep pace with the emerging opportunities and threats, in early 2022 Bahrain launched the Telecommunications, ICT and Digital Economy Sector Strategy 2022-26, which includes such objectives as developing cybersecurity standards and enhancing the country’s capacity to monitor and respond to cyberattacks, as well as conducting cybersecurity training for at least 20,000 citizens. With these measures, Bahrain aims to establish quality digital infrastructure, attract large tech companies and become a regional centre for digital innovation.
In June 2022 Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority launched the Telecommunications Emergency Response Plan. Designed in collaboration with other stakeholders, the plan lays out a coordinated sector-wide response to ICT-related emergencies. By bolstering the country’s cybersecurity measures, the roadmap seeks to ensure business continuity in sectors like health, education and energy.
Saudi Arabia was second globally in the cybersecurity index in the Switzerland-based International Institute for Management Development’s World Competitiveness Yearbook 2022. The ranking was recognition of the “Saudi model in cybersecurity”, as the Kingdom is developing its cybersecurity capacity and workforce through such initiatives as the Saudi Cybersecurity Higher Education Framework, which aims to develop quality academic programmes in the field of cybersecurity. It has also implemented the Saudi Cybersecurity Workforce Framework.
Kuwait has been particularly proactive in implementing measures to mitigate cybersecurity risks, enacting a national cybersecurity law in 2015 and publishing a cybersecurity framework for the banking sector through the central bank in 2020.
Nigeria has taken notable steps to improve its cybersecurity. In June 2022 the government announced the creation of cybersecurity toolkits for more than 41m micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises. Many other emerging markets in Africa have indicated they will develop their own national strategies in the coming months. For example, Kenya announced in June 2022 that it planned to develop strategies to protect its digital ecosystem.
In a sign of the importance of the issue, in June 2022 international media reported that the US and the EU were developing plans to fund secure digital infrastructure in developing countries. The proposal marks the first time the US and the EU will work together to fund and protect other countries’ critical infrastructure from cyberattacks. Initial projects are slated to take place in countries in Africa and Latin America.
Some regions are at greater risk of attack than others. According to the Cyber-Risk Index for the second half of 2021 – developed by Japanese multinational cybersecurity software company Trend Micro in partnership with the Ponemon Institute – Latin America had the highest level of risk, followed by Europe, North America and Asia Pacific (Africa was not included in the report). While the report noted that the global rise in cyberthreats in 2021 was largely due to the pandemic and remote working, Latin America’s elevated risk was attributed to the region’s organisations having a lower level of perceived readiness for cyberattacks. In 2021 the number of cyberattacks in Latin America increased by 600%, according to cybersecurity company Fortinet, with Mexico the target of 54% of the 289bn attempted attacks, followed by Brazil (30.6%), Peru (4%) and Colombia (3.9%).
As countries around the world take stock of the risks and damages associated with cybercrime, it is expected that the rise in attacks may lead to greater demand for innovative solutions such as cyberinsurance. According to Vantage Market Research, the global market for cyberinsurance is projected to reach $28.5bn by 2028, up from $7.5bn in 2021.
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