Covid-19: How data networks are supporting the new normal

The change in workplace dynamics of the Covid-19 world has not only strained digital networks but also provided an increased number of cybersecurity challenges



On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 coronavirus a pandemic, which has stalled industries and triggered nation-wide lockdowns across several world economies. Governments and corporates activated remote work protocols, instructing people to stay home and practice social distancing.

Simultaneously, distance learning programmes for children were put into effect. In one swift motion, educational institutions and boardrooms morphed into remote desks and workplaces; smart applications into digital classrooms and video conferences superseded physical ones.

This transition, for the most part, was seamless thanks to its underpinning technology – the internet. That said, this deluge of digitisation has, in no small terms, strained the data infrastructures of many nations, as telecom operators scramble to cope with the overwhelming demand for seamless connectivity.

On top of professional and academic workloads, increased time spent online for entertainment purposes has congested the world’s information highways like never before.

In a nutshell, the appetite for bandwidth has gone into overdrive, prompting service providers to tweak their offerings. Streaming service Netflix and YouTube reduced the quality of videos on their platforms to mitigate the stress on bandwidth.

Rising to the occasion
In the UAE, telecom operators have responded to the government’s decisions to enact remote work protocols and extend distant learning programmes till the end of the current academic year.

“Our role is to empower the connectivity of the entire ecosystem. Today, we have students learning from home, and parents who are working from home themselves while supervising their kids’ remote learning activities,” says Saleem AlBlooshi, chief technology officer, du.

“Moreover, we have industries and governments communicating round the clock across the nation as they continue to play a critical role in managing this situation and keeping all UAE residents safe. Understandably, there is a high demand for uninterrupted mobile and home connectivity, which we have been working diligently to provide. Following the school break, we observed an increase of around 20 per cent on fixed network traffic, while residential areas are also showing significant increases across broadband, TV, and streaming services.”

The company has also provided access to school websites and educational platforms without data charges, while services such as Blackboard, Zoom, and Google Hangouts Meet are available to use for fixed-line users.

“We are continuing to build a comprehensive list of distance learning content that will be free of data charges, and we have increased internet speeds up to 500Mbps for free to meet all customer communication needs while working remotely. We are also supporting remote working with the provision of free voice and video calls on the Voico UAE app to support daily workloads, and we have accommodated growth by as much as 500 per cent on communication tools such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams to contribute towards business continuity,” adds AlBlooshi.

Digital safety
With digital becoming the primary mode of communication for social and professional interactions, risks associated with cyber security have also come to the fore. In the UAE, the National Computer Emergency Response Team responded to 34,936 cyberattacks experienced by UAE federal entities during March, divided between malware (59 per cent), exploit (34 per cent) and phishing attacks (6 per cent), the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority’s monthly report on cybersecurity developments revealed.

“The internet has almost instantly become the channel for effective human interaction and the primary way we work, contact and support one another. It comes as no surprise that the need for this rapid digital transformation of companies and organisations, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has widened the attacks surface and the volume of data to collect and treat,” says Neil McElhinney, head of Critical Information Systems and Cyber Security, Thales Middle East.

“With ever more businesses moving their data from on-premises to the cloud, the need for a secure infrastructure that protects all remotely stored data has risen sharply. However, unfortunately, many organisations are playing catch up when it comes to cybersecurity, especially on the cloud.”

According to the 2020 Thales Data Threat report, 50 per cent of all corporate data is stored in the cloud and nearly half (48 per cent) of that data is considered sensitive.

“With multi-cloud usage now becoming the new norm for companies as the world shifts towards remote working, all respondents said at least some of the sensitive data stored in the cloud is not encrypted. Globally, 49 per cent indicated that they had experienced a breach even before the global pandemic, hence having the right cloud security in place has never been more critical,” McElhinney adds.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also triggered an information overload online and on social media, providing increased scope for cyber attackers. Estimates suggest that 98 per cent of cyberattacks use social engineering methods.

“Social engineering occurs when hackers use psychological manipulation to trick you into making security mistakes or giving away sensitive information. The current situation could be incredibly distressing for many businesses. Our attention, overstretched by the Covid-19 crisis, may lead people to act without consideration for their immediate security, especially as stress and worry pushes us all to seek as much information as possible,” explains McElhinney.

“Many cybercriminals are seeking to exploit our thirst for information as a vector for attack, with attackers using Covid-19-themed phishing e-mails. According to several sources, it appears that globally, 50 per cent of the domain names created since December and linked to the theme of Covid-19 or coronavirus can lead to the injection of malicious software.

“Large multinational corporations with staff functioning from multiple locations should start putting cybersecurity tools and enforcing some easy-to- follow practices to protect their data. While we are collectively making efforts to flatten the curve of the pandemic, timelines are uncertain, and so we are likely to experience a prolonged period of cyber vulnerability,”  McElhinney concludes.