Record number of cyber attacks stopped as vaccine research targeted

A total of 777 incidents were mitigated between September 2020 and the end of August this year.

Record number of cyber attacks stopped as vaccine research targeted iStock

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) helped combat a record number of cyber incidents in the UK over the last year, with many targeting Covid-19 research and vaccines, the organisation’s latest annual review has revealed.

The cybersecurity agency, which is part of GCHQ, said it had helped mitigate 777 incidents between September 2020 and the end of August this year – around 20% of which aimed at organisations linked to the health sector and vaccines.

It said the growth in reported incidents was partly down to its work to proactively identify cyber threats, but it had also had to respond to a rise in cyber attacks, particularly ransomware.

Ransomware is a form of cyber attack which locks files and data on a user’s computer and demands payment in order for them to be released back to the owner, and has been used as part of a number of high-profile cyber attacks in recent years, including the 2017 attack on the NHS.

Earlier this year, NCSC chief executive Lindy Cameron warned that criminals and state-backed groups will continue to use the pandemic as a vehicle for a cyber attack – whether it be to target information around vaccines or by stoking fears to carry out scams.

The NCSC said it had made extra effort since the start of the pandemic to protect the healthcare sector as a result.

Responding to the latest NCSC review, Cameron said: “I’m proud of the way the NCSC has responded to what has been another hugely challenging year for the country as we all continue to navigate our way through the pandemic.

“The support and expertise we have provided for stakeholders from government all the way through to the general public during the pandemic has been vital to keeping the country safe online.

“Undoubtedly there are challenges ahead, but the upcoming National Cyber Strategy combined with the continued engagement from businesses and the public provides a solid foundation for us to continue reducing the impact of online threats.”

The review also revealed that the NCSC had received more than 5.9 million reports of malicious content from the public via its Suspicious Email Reporting Service, which allows people to forward emails to the organisation if they believe it is malicious.

As a result of those reports, the NCSC said more than 53,000 scams have been taken down, alongside 96,5000 URLs.

“The National Cyber Security Centre’s annual review illustrates the incredible effort of our security service in keeping the public safe over the last year, foiling more cyber attacks than ever before,” Steve Barclay, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said.

“It also makes clear that cybercrime is taking place on an unprecedented scale with criminals seeking to take advantage of people as they move more of their lives online as a result of the pandemic.”

Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, said: “This year we have seen countless examples of cyber security threats: from state-sponsored activity to criminal ransomware attacks. It all serves to remind us that what happens online doesn’t stay online – there are real consequences of virtual activity.

“In the face of rising cyberattacks and an evolving threat, this year’s NCSC’s annual review shows that world-class cyber security, enabled by the expertise of the NCSC as part of GCHQ, continues to be vital to the UK’s safety and prosperity.”

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