2021 predictions: Covid-19 vaccination scams and deepfake disinformation campaigns

Grace Macej 8 Dec 2020

Plus, a continuation of home-office-based attacks

The time has come for us to take a look at what 2021 holds within the world of cybersecurity and malicious online activity. When looking ahead to the new year, our team foresees big developments in the digital sphere — specifically, a significant presence of Covid-19 vaccination scams, abuse of weak home office infrastructures, enterprise VPN infrastructure and providers, and ransomware attacks. 

In 2021, we can also expect a rise in deepfake disinformation campaigns and other malicious AI-generated campaigns to gain more traction. Our team has specifically looked into the Android platform, on which Avast predicts further adware attacks, fleeceware scams, and stalkerware usage.

Covid-19 vaccination scams

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19-related fake shops began circulating, promising cures and dubious pandemic survival tips. Now, with the availability of vaccinations expected in 2021, Avast predicts a surge in vaccination scams, presented to users via fake shops and ads on social media. 

This year, fake offerings were a malicious trend that took off during the Covid-19 pandemic. Users of websites selling Covid-19 related supplies complained they never received products after purchasing them. 

People should be wary of scams, specifically around the topic of vaccinations. If you see vaccination offerings circulating on the internet, you need to keep in mind that the sale is likely too good to be true, as vaccinations should be distributed through official sources only. Trust your local doctors and medical institutions for Covid-19 information and vaccinations.

Attacks on healthcare and pharma orgs

This year, a number of healthcare institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia were attacked by ransomware, stealing data that in some cases were leaked to the public. Cybercrime groups also initiated espionage attacks on pharmaceutical and clinical research organizations. In 2021, Avast threat intelligence experts anticipate further ransomware, data exfiltration and espionage attacks on healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

Further reading: Hospitals need to protect themselves from digital viruses now more than ever

“We expect to see a continuation of ransomware attacks on healthcare institutions and the exfiltration of sensitive data, with attacks specifically targeting pharmaceutical companies and institutions to harvest sensitive customer information for blackmailing and industry espionage. Companies in other sectors will be at risk of falling victim to targeted attacks via their VPN infrastructure and remote desktop applications they may be using to connect employees working from home,” says Jakub Kroustek, Threat Labs Team Lead at Avast.

As many employees will continue to work from home in 2021, there is a high likelihood that cyberattacks on enterprise VPN infrastructure and providers will continue, with the goal of infiltrating business networks with targeted attacks designed to spy on confidential information and steal intellectual property and customer data.

Deepfakes come into play in disinformation campaigns

The quality of deepfakes has greatly improved over the last few years, but up until now, they have only been used in isolated cases, or as proof of concept. In deepfake videos, computer animation tricks are used to manipulate gestures, facial expressions and the voice of a real person, such as a politician or celebrity, making it hard for the audience to distinguish if an action or statement from the person is real or not. 

“Deepfakes will likely reach a quality next year where they can be actively used in disinformation campaigns. Conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, such as its alleged spread via 5G, could be reemphasized via deepfake videos, for example wrongly showing politicians as conspirators. The pandemic, the resulting increase in people working from home, and higher reliance on online connectivity as well as the growing economic pressure, combined with uncertainty among people, are likely to feed into the effectiveness of the use of deepfakes to spread disinformation,” said Petr Somol, AI Research Director at Avast.

Growth in datasets and knowledge bases for AI-based threats 

While there has yet to be clear evidence of known AI-based threats circulating in the wild, Avast has observed an acceleration in the growth of new and emerging threats. This growth is due to the use of automation by the adversaries where AI may be involved to some extent, likely in combination with simpler techniques. 

Malicious campaigns, targeted attacks, and Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) generated using AI techniques are already viable, but to become effective, very extensive datasets and knowledge bases are needed and Avast AI experts anticipate these to be developed in 2021 and beyond.

Adware and stalkerware will keep on thriving

On mobile devices, our team anticipates the mobile threat landscape to be dominated by aggressive adware as it is an easy way for cybercriminals to make money. For most of 2020, adware was the strongest Android threat, with about one-third of all threats being adware. Fleeceware, a subscription scam that can be described as a combination of adware and fake apps, was also prominent in 2020, both on iOS and Android. Avast experts predict that these will likely remain dominant in 2021.

Since the initial surge of stalkerware during the first wave of the pandemic, the number of global stalkerware attacks has remained high throughout 2020. Stalkerware includes apps that are typically installed secretly by a person close to the victim, such as a jealous spouse, to spy on the person by tracking their physical location, monitoring messages and recording phone calls. While Avast’s mobile threat intelligence experts expect this trend to continue, we don’t expect to see a new surge in the new year. 

And with that, it’s goodbye (and good riddance!) to 2020. It’s our mission to keep people as secure and informed as possible while navigating our ever-changing digital world — now, in 2021, and beyond.

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