By James Norrie
Can I catch COVID-19 from my computer?
That’s a really good question these days, and like any other surface, I suppose one could. But that’s actually the least of your worries.
The real issue with computers in this pandemic is the collateral damage inflicted by COVID-19 by the more fundamental problem of merging our “at work”-and “at-home” behaviors, potentially lowering our cybersecurity defenses and making us more vulnerable to a host of online infections of various sorts.
Danger lurks in your home office
We are entering a period of structural change in the economy with the forced closure of non-essential businesses, shelter-in-place orders and many of us now working from home.
This distributed world of work is definitely different. Our home computing environments do not offer us the same technical security and end-point safeguards that are already built into our corporate networks.
But even if technologists have taken measures to secure home networks before sending workers home, they’ll never reduce cybersecurity risk to zero. Even at the office, we are often only one human click away from disaster.
Yet we are naïve about our own contributions to cybersecurity risk and count on technology to solve a problem that is human-based. This is a dangerous self-serving myth propagated by big tech. It is a con game.
But at least when we are at the office, our social cues and clues are different, tinged with the restrained expectations of being in a workplace. As huge tracts of the economy morph into working from home, this escalates overall cybersecurity risk nationwide, relying on the already low levels of general cybersecurity awareness demonstrated by most of us.
So fear and stress is really my point. The fight or flight response is an instinct we all possess. It is at times like this – with COVID-19 disrupting everything we accept as “normal” and replacing it with anxiety about the future – that mass panic is most easily triggered. We cannot let that happen.
Fake News goes viral
Even in the best of times, misinformation traps run rampant online. With everyone desperately scrambling for guidance and answers in an uncertain time, we’re even more likely to fall victim to grifters promising to solve the coronavirus pandemic. That is because the human condition wants optimism and hope right now – but they cannot be trusted to provide it.
Heartless online crime gangs have already started to exploit the most vulnerable among us by running online scams involving fake cures for COVID-19, access to important protective gear like masks and gloves, or offering payment to participate in fake clinical trials of new vaccines or medication.
And we naturally crave good news to offset all the sea of negativity we so often find in the mainstream media. This increases our vulnerability, making us easy marks.
More than ever, now is not the time to throw skepticism and critical thinking to the wind. We must be ever-vigilant, checking all the facts before we believe what we read online. While an obvious statement, make sure you get your information only from trusted sources like the CDC, your local public health authorities, state government and other authoritative sources.
I have written before about how low rates of online information literacy in an era of fake news already made us vulnerable in the past.
Add in the stress of being confined to working at home under stressful conditions and the arrival of a global pandemic, and we have all the right conditions for this public health crisis to provoke a cybersecurity crisis. It really is us versus them and more than ever we have no choice but to win. For everyone’s sake.
James Norrie is a professor at York College of Pennsylvania and the author of “Cybercon: Big Tech and Bigger Lies” (cyberconthebook.com). He teaches courses in business strategy, cybersecurity, information privacy and technology law. Reach him at [email protected].