Most of the world is currently experiencing highly atypical living conditions as a result of COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic, more than 2 billion people were under some form of lockdown, and 91% of the world’s population, or 7.1 billion people, live in countries with border controls or travel restrictions due to the virus.
It would be comforting to think this is merely a “blip” interrupting an essentially stable state of affairs, and that the world will return to “normal” once medicine and science have tamed the virus.
Comforting – and wrong.
COVID-19 is not the only risk with the ability to quickly and exponentially disrupt the way we live. The crisis shows that the world is far more prone to disturbance by pandemics, cyberattacks or environmental tipping points than history indicates.
Our “new normal” isn’t COVID-19 itself – it’s COVID-like incidents.
And a cyber pandemic is probably as inevitable as a future disease pandemic. The time to start thinking about the response is – as always – yesterday.
To start that process, it’s important to examine the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic – and use them to prepare for a future global cyberattack.
Lesson #1: A cyberattack with characteristics similar to the coronavirus would spread faster and further than any biological virus.
The reproductive rate – or R0 – of COVID-19 is somewhere between two and three without any social distancing, which means every infected person passes the virus to a couple of other people. This number affects how fast a virus can spread; the number of infected people in New York state was doubling every three days before lockdown.
By contrast, estimates of R0 of cyberattacks are 27 and above. One of the fastest worms in history, the 2003 Slammer/Sapphire worm, doubled in size approximately every 8.5 seconds, spreading to over 75,000 infected devices in 10 minutes and 10.8 million devices in 24 hours. The 2017 WannaCry attack exploited a vulnerability in older Windows systems to cripple more than 200,000 computers in 150 countries; it was halted by emergency patches and the accidental discovery of a “kill switch”.
The cyber equivalent of COVID-19 would be a self-propagating attack using one or more “zero-day” exploits, techniques for which patches and specific antivirus software signatures are not yet available. Most likely, it would attack all devices running a single, common operating system or application.
Since zero-day attacks are rarely discovered right away – Stuxnet used four separate zero-day exploits and hid in systems for 18 months before attacking – it would take a while to identify the virus and even longer to stop it from spreading. If the vector were a popular social networking application with, say, 2 billion users, a virus with a reproductive rate of 20 may take five days to infect over 1 billion devices.
Lesson #2: The economic impact of a widespread digital shutdown would be of the same magnitude – or greater – than what we’re currently seeing.
If cyber-COVID mirrored the pathology of the novel coronavirus, 30% of infected systems would be asymptomatic and spread the virus, while half would continue functioning with performance severely degraded – the digital equivalent of being in bed for a week. Meanwhile 15% would be “wiped” with total data loss, requiring a complete system reinstall. Finally, 5% would be “bricked” – rendering the device itself inoperable.
The end result: millions of devices would be taken offline in a matter of days.
The only way to stop the exponential propagation of cyber-COVID would be to fully disconnect all vulnerable devices from one another and the internet to avoid infection. The whole world could experience cyber lockdown until a digital vaccine was developed. All business communication and data transfers would be blocked. Social contact would be reduced to people contactable by in-person visits, copper landline, snail-mail or short-wave radio.