Middle East facing ‘cyber pandemic’ as Covid exposes security vulnerabilities, cyber chief says

The Middle East region is facing a “cyber pandemic” with Covid-19 related attacks skyrocketing this year, according to the United Arab Emirates government’s top cyber security chief. “As we moved into a full online life, we saw a huge increase in many of those attacks,” Mohamed al-Kuwaiti, head of UAE Government Cyber Security, said.

The UAE has seen an “at least 250% increase” in cyberattacks this year, Al Kuwaiti said, as the pandemic forced organizations around the world to reconsider how and where they work and hackers and malicious actors took advantage of increased digital adoption. “There is a cyber pandemic, not only a biological pandemic,” he said.

Al Kuwaiti also said that the United Arab Emirates was the target of “huge attacks” from “activists” against the UAE after it established formal ties with Israel in August. “The financial sector was one of the most attacked areas, as well as the health sector,” Al-Kuwaiti revealed, without going into specific detail about the nature of the incidents in the UAE or whether they were successful.

The comments offer a snapshot into the increasingly challenging cybersecurity environment in the UAE and the wider Middle East region, where security breaches and attacks are widespread, frequently undetected and often state-sponsored.

Al Kuwaiti said a variety of sources were responsible for the attacks. “We see it coming from the whole region, but one is Iran,” he said, reflecting ongoing tensions in the region. Iran has also said that it has been a victim of hacking.

When asked what type of attacks were occurring most, Al Kuwaiti said “phishing” and “ransomware” were becoming more sophisticated and increasing in frequency. A phishing attack occurs when a cybercriminal masquerades as a legitimate person or business to extract sensitive information from a victim voluntarily. Ransomware occurs when a hacker blocks access to a victim’s files, then demands payment to restore access.