A man wears a face mask as he browses on his phone in a shopping mall in Montreal, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. A federal agency that monitors brewing online threats warns that fraudsters are dangling COVID-19-related content to fool victims into clicking on malicious links and attachments. In a report today, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security says online tricksters know people are anxious about the future and are less likely to act prudently when they see emails, SMS messages or advertisements related to the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Canada’s cybersecurity agency warns of online threats that exploit COVID-19 fears

Canada’s cybersecurity agency warns of online threats that exploit COVID-19 fears

OTTAWA — A federal agency that monitors brewing online threats warns of fraudsters dangling COVID-19-related content to fool victims into clicking on malicious links and attachments.

Online tricksters know people are anxious about the future and are less likely to act prudently when they see emails, text messages or advertisements related to the pandemic, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security said in a report Wednesday.

The report, the centre’s latest look at the cyberthreat landscape, says while criminal activity is the most likely danger, the state-sponsored programs of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea pose the greatest strategic threats to Canada.

COVID-19 lures often attempt to imitate the branding and style of legitimate institutions, such as international organizations and public health agencies, the centre said.

It noted that cyberthreat actors can produce convincing copies of government websites and official correspondence.

One text-message phishing campaign claimed to provide access to a Canada Emergency Response Benefit payment, but only after the target handed over personal financial details.

Another campaign impersonated the Public Health Agency of Canada’s chief public health officer to deliver malware through a fake COVID-19 update that appeared official and legitimate, the report says.

“We’re all hyper-connected now,” centre head Scott Jones told a news conference. “It’s important to take a breath, to say, hey, do I know this person?”

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the extent to which the Canadian economy relies on digital infrastructure, the report says.

“With a sudden increase in the number of Canadians working from home, the protection and security of cyber and telecommunications infrastructure, hardware and software, and the supply chains that support them, is critical to national security and economic prosperity.”

Shifts in March 2020 due to the pandemic quickly changed the online environment, as more Canadians began to work, shop and socialize remotely, the report notes.

“We foresee this trend continuing, bringing more facets of Canadian economic, social and political life online and exposing them to cyberthreats, which have also been evolving to take advantage of the growing importance of the internet and related technologies.”

Canada, Britain and the United States denounced Russian hackers in July for trying to steal research on COVID-19 vaccines from organizations in all three countries and around the world.

State-backed players are expected to continue trying to pilfer intellectual property related to managing COVID-19 to support their domestic public health responses or to profit from its illegal reproduction by their own firms, the new report warned.

While online foreign-influence activities tend to increase around elections, these ongoing campaigns have broadened since 2018, expanding to react to current events, shifting their content strategies around trending news stories and popular political issues, the centre said.

“For instance, we have observed recent campaigns focus their content around COVID-19 and government responses to the pandemic,” the report noted.

“Disinformation campaigns have also sought to discredit and criticize Canadian politicians to damage their reputations.”

State-sponsored actors are also very likely attempting to develop capabilities to meddle with Canadian critical infrastructure, such as the electricity supply, to further their goals, the report said.

“We judge that it is very unlikely, however, that cyberthreat actors will intentionally seek to disrupt Canadian critical infrastructure and cause major damage or loss of life in the absence of international hostilities.”

Nevertheless, they might target Canadian organizations to collect information, position themselves for future activities or simply intimidate.

In addition, ransomware attacks directed against Canada, in which swindlers hold data or computer systems hostage in exchange for payment, will almost certainly continue to target large enterprises and critical infrastructure providers, the report said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many health-sector organizations have experienced ransomware attacks, including hospitals and health-care centres in the Czech Republic, the U.S., Spain, and Germany, it noted.

“Health-sector organizations are popular ransomware targets because they have significant financial resources and network downtime can have life-threatening consequences for patients, increasing the likelihood that victims will pay the ransom.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet arrives at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Air Canada agrees to $5.9-billion aid package, giving Ottawa equity stake in airline

$1.4 billion earmarked to help reimburse thousands of customers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Yukon Premier Sandy Silver as Liberal on Wednesday February 8, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Yukon headed for minority government as two main parties in a tie

Liberals came into the election looking to build on their surprise 2016 majority win

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Sajjan took aim at recent Chinese military expansions into the South China Sea this evening even as he faced questions about the Liberal government’s ties to Beijing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Sajjan targets Chinese claims in South China Sea, battles Tories over Beijing ties

HMCS Calgary shadowed for at least part of the voyage as it passed near the disputed Spratly Islands

Transport trucks approach the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. North American trade is facing a “critical moment” in the ongoing aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, say Canadian business leaders as they embark on a concerted campaign to fortify ties with the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Canada-U.S. trade faces ‘critical moment’ that demands urgent action, businesses warn

Will fall to Canada to ensure its best interests are represented

Two RCMP officers observe a moment of silence to honour slain Const. Heidi Stevenson and the other 21 victims of the mass killings at a checkpoint on Portapique Road in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
RCMP under scrutiny one year after mass killing that left 22 dead in Nova Scotia

Questions raised about why it took police 13 hours to stop mass killing

FILE-Team Canada’s Meaghan Mikkelson fights for control of the puck with U.S.A.’s Hayley Scamurra during third period of Women’s Rivalry Series hockey action in Vancouver, Wednesday, February 5, 2020. Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada’s director of women’s national teams, hopes a Rivalry Series against the United States can happen this winter.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Dwyer
Canadian women’s hockey team to open selection camp in Nova Scotia

Six goaltenders, 15 defenders and 26 forwards will vie for spots on Canada’s 23-player roster

FILE - Rhian Wilkinson, left, and Melissa Tancredi of Canada’s women’s soccer team attend a news conference in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 to announce their retirement from the team. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson now part of England coaching setup

Wilkinson left Canada Soccer in January to join interim England head coach Hege Riise as an assistant

Canadian actor/producer/director Jay Baruchel is photographed at the 5 Drive-In Theatre in Oakville, Ont., ahead of the premier of Baruchel’s movie Random Acts of Violence, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
Jay Baruchel to host Amazon Prime Video’s ‘LOL: Last One Laughing Canada’

Final comedian left standing wins a grand prize for a charity of their choice

Letter: Leaders like MLA Jason Stephan should work towards greater good

Red Deer South MLA Jason Stephan talks about the devastating social and… Continue reading

Opinion: Women, hit hardest by pandemic, key to economic recovery

Events of the past year have laid bare the many disparities and… Continue reading

Children at the Port Angeles Boys & Girls Club practice social distancing throughout the day to minimize the spreading of germs and potentially the coronavirus. Photo courtesy of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula
Opinion: Teach young people these five principles

At all ages, young people may be the subject of mean behaviours… Continue reading

LtE bug
Letter: MLAs need to think about all Albertans

I was surprised to find more than a dozen UCP MLAs were… Continue reading

Most Read