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Well, it’s that time of year. Time for the much-ballyhooed 2021 predictions. Time to stick our collective cyber finger in the digital winds to determine the coming trends. As we exit 2020, the year that ran like a compilation of disaster movies, we are set for more of the same, at least when it comes to cybercrime. Here are my top seven predictions:
In 2020, conspiracy theories pervaded popular social media services. In 2021, deep fake won’t simply be about seamless manipulation of video and audio. Rather, the general acceptance of the preposterous will become the new baseline. Expect new media platform names to not only become household vernacular but prosper as the protectors of the First Amendment and uncensored speech. On New Year’s Eve, kiss truth and fact goodbye, and say hello to a whole new opportunity for criminals to spread misinformation and continue to sow mistrust.
The shenanigans seen in election tampering will go mainstream — and for profit. Swaying or manipulating elections is the long play for gray zones (aka, enemy states: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, etc.). The short play involves using the same tactics to manipulate public sentiment and belief to engineer the value of a publicly traded company and make money on the stock market.
Insider trading is nothing new for the SEC to police, but when it happens in extremely subtle ways through the manipulation of social media, it looks like gray cyberwars: hard to prove, difficult to attribute, and even harder to stop. Imagine if campaigns promote a product and spread tales of poor quality, dangerous materials, or labor abuses to damage the reputation of a global brand. Criminals can “short” the stock knowing it will fall. Gray crime leaves no fingerprints. There is no smoking gun — only millions of posts and re-posts. And bots, fake accounts, and false identities create a haystack in which the criminal needle is hidden. These crimes will likely go unnoticed, let alone unprosecuted.
Machine learning could help with gray crime, looking at eddies in the current, undetectable to the naked eye, that indicate suspicious activity. But 2021 will see the poisoning of the AI well, and manipulation of data lakes to affect the outcome of machine learning. It’s the same approach as election tampering. What would a poisoned data well look like? How about missed cancer detection in medical technology? Or, planting an easter egg so security algorithms miss specific aberrant behavior that creates a vulnerability criminals can exploit? Machine learning and AI can be used to analyze millions of cyber attacks to hone skills and predict the most successful tactics or phishing lures, but we shouldn’t assume they will always be used for noble purposes.
In the same way that election tampering and the mainstream spread of conspiracy theories has eroded accepted fact and bipartisan trust, the next campaign of cyber attacks will sow suspicion between companies and the vendors they trust to protect them from cyber criminals. In 2020, we saw a rise in cyber attacks against managed service providers and marquee security vendors. Initial attacks were used to access the target business through its most trusted and privileged suppliers, the security vendors. This new phase is designed to erode trust in security technology and its ability to protect their clients. It could create a do-it-yourself mentality, and carve off companies from the herd, leaving them vulnerable to attack. It won’t work in regulated industries, but might in private, family-owned businesses that are already looking for an excuse not to spend money on IT.
I talked about gray crime. What about brown (out) crime? Criminals showed they are willing to cripple healthcare delivery organizations amidst the greatest pandemic of our generation. And, we’ve seen nation states target businesses in retaliation for geopolitical events. We’ve also seen smaller and limited cyber attacks against local utilities such as water and electricity. Perhaps those attacks are testing our perimeter. Imagine the impact of constant cyber attacks against power, water and gas providers? How long before the public demands governments pay ransoms, or demand like-for-like retribution? It’s a world that is no longer distinguishing between combatants and civilians. There won’t be collateral damage. Just damage. And, we will all pay the price.
We often compare the actuarial maturity of life or auto insurance to cyber policies as a way of expressing security maturity as a proxy for risk, thereby establishing premiums. Cyber insurance is often characterized as the wild, wild west. Not anymore. It’s time to settle the west. The reality is, companies will have to carry coverage to offset residual risk. In fact, coverage will likely become a requirement to participate in certain industries or client pools. Like data breaches, it’s not if, but when. Same goes for cyber insurance.
Like white collar crime of the past, it simply became “crime.” We stopped distinguishing between the methodology of the malfeasance. The same will happen with cybercrime. As we become more and more interconnected, we won’t see the difference between crime categories. So, perhaps an extra prediction: By the end of 2021, we will drop the use of cybercrime. It will simply be referred to as “crime.” The cyber piece will become a secondary descriptor. Gun or knife, pen or privilege, cyber or digital. It’s a tool or weapon. What matters is that it’s crime. Pure and simple.
Mark is a cybersecurity evangelist who has spent significant time researching and speaking to peripheral factors influencing the way that legal firms integrate cybersecurity into their day-to-day operations.