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Mitigating Cyber Risk During the COVID-19 New Normal

October 05, 2020
Client Alert

By Craig R. Blackman, Peter Bogdasarian and Rachel Ortiz

* The attorneys thank Rachel Ortiz for her assistance with this article. Stradley Ronon hosted Rachel Ortiz as a 2020 summer associate in the firm’s Philadelphia, PA, office.

COVID-19 is driving tremendous uncertainty in the professional workspace, particularly concerning where workers will physically perform their job. When the pandemic first struck, CEOs were impressed with workers’ ability to adapt to remote working environments. Some companies quickly embraced the efficiencies and cost-cutting opportunities that resulted from pandemic-driven telework and committed to long term remote work.1

However, cracks are beginning to emerge as workers continue to telework long after most expected a return to their physical workplaces. Some businesses are noticing that projects are taking longer, training is more difficult, hiring and integrating new employees is more complicated, and younger professionals are not having the same opportunities for development as they would have in the typical in-office environment.2

Some of the initial efficiencies recognized are now being attributed to the fear that employees felt when the pandemic began, of losing their job if they failed to perform at the same level as in-person operations. Such fear-driven productivity is proving unsustainable.3

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 29% of Americans were able to work from home pre-pandemic.4 Surveys show that post-COVID-19, most workers want the option to work from home at least part-time.5 Thus, many companies are now envisioning a hybrid future where employees can work remotely part of the time and work from the office for the remainder of their workweek.6 

Whatever the new normal looks like, it is widely accepted that teleworking is inherently less secure than working from the office.7 Further, a hybrid approach could prove even riskier as far as cybersecurity and cyber-risk are concerned.

As we approach this new normal, there will be a learning curve. Unforeseen security challenges will pop up, just as they did when workers first shifted to remote work at the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown. For example, the shutdown drove huge growth in the use of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft’s Teams.8 For corporate users, encryption and privacy on these platforms are critical to safeguarding valuable company information and meeting practical and statutory privacy obligations to customers.9 Trial and error forced some companies who initially relied upon Zoom to quickly ban its use for corporate content because the platform did not meet basic security requirements at the time.10

Security officials are better able to manage and secure information technology networks in an office or other captive workspace environment. Employees’ home Wi-Fi networks likely have weaker protocols that hackers can access more easily.11 The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) found that even where organizations use virtual private network (VPN) solutions to connect employees to their networks, new vulnerabilities are being found and targeted by malicious cyber actors.12

The COVID-19 pandemic also seems to have ushered in a resurgence of state-backed hacking.13 The hacking was targeted at COVID-19-related data.14 However, those hackers are now trained and likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In April 2020, security experts at Google sent 1,755 warnings to users whose accounts were targets of government-backed attackers.15 These hackers targeted business leaders in financial services, consulting, and healthcare around the world, including in the United States.16

In general, hacking and phishing attempts have increased during the pandemic.17 Malicious actors are successfully preying on workers’ anxieties and fears surrounding the pandemic,18 and exploiting the uncertain circumstances to increase their rate and scope of cyberattacks.

Finally, the U.S. workforce is largely unsophisticated when it comes to teleworking, which could be exacerbated if and when organizations move towards a hybrid work schedule. When workers constantly switch from office to remote work, an organization risks complacency. And complacency risks exposure. Entities with private personal, health, or financial data, like law firms, brokers and financial advisers, and medical offices, must protect their clients’ sensitive personal information. While working from home, telephone and other communications must remain confidential. These businesses must find ways to guard against the predictable tendency for employees to be less careful while teleworking. Going back and forth from the office to remote working will require a heightened level of vigilance.

Best cybersecurity practices for remote or hybrid work start with educating and training the workforce.19  Employees must know what to look for and how to prevent phishing or malware attempts.20 Issuing employer-owned devices for all workers with defined security is ideal.21  Employers must keep software and systems updated, ensure that their workforce is using strong passwords, and regularly monitor accounts for suspicious activity.22

The future of cybersecurity likely involves leveraging powerful technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.23 AI can be used for fraud detection, malware detection, intrusion detection, scoring risk in a network, and user/machine behavioral analysis.24

In the present, there are several steps organizations can and should be taking to mitigate their cyber risks:

  1. Continue to develop awareness among the organization’s personnel: With many employees placed into an unfamiliar remote work environment, it is more important than ever to develop their ability to detect (and report) cyberattacks and to train them to recognize that threat actors may deploy new forms of attacks to take advantage of the disruptions of COVID-19. For example, deploying phishing simulation tests themed with pandemic-related content may lead to substantially a higher click-through rate among users.25 Now is a good time to reflect on the organization’s security awareness plan as it relates to training users and testing the efficacy of said training.
  2. Regaining control over the network: For many years, cybersecurity professionals concentrated their efforts on securing the “perimeter” of the network, with the idea that the worst threats would originate from outside the network. As threat actors became more skilled at infiltration and internal threats became more prominent, the industry began to question the reliability of this model. The sudden mass migration to a remote work argument has now put an end to the notion that the best way to defend the network is to simply secure it against exterior access while extending unlimited trust to users inside the network.26 The challenge now facing companies is how to configure remote work solutions in a fashion that avoids creating new infiltration routes into the core network, and that provides a measure of comfort that IT and security are aware of what is going on inside the walls.

    As noted above, for many users, VPNs have been at the forefront of their remote work experience. The concept behind the VPN approach is traffic is encrypted and sent through the VPN’s internet connection. However, what traffic is redirected through the VPN connection is a question of configuration, and a VPN network may not be configured to direct all of a user’s traffic through the VPN network (called “split tunneling”) and this configuration, while beneficial from the standpoint of lessening the load on the network, may create its own opportunities for a threat actor to attack.27 Therefore, it is important to reassess how employees connect to the organization’s network and whether additional education is required regarding the limitations and vulnerabilities of the organization’s remote work solution(s). Are patches being distributed in a timely manner? Can remote access be configured in a manner to increase security without compromising the essential user experience?
  3. Understanding your organization’s remote tools: As alluded to earlier, the sudden transition of the workforce to reliance on online conference and collaboration tools created vast incentives for mischief (so-called “zoom bombing” and similar misbehavior) along with more destructive attacks. Users then needed to be educated on the security controls built into these tools and on how to configure their use to avoid exposing the organization to these kinds of attacks.28
  4. Maintain a firm grip over your IT devices and resources: “Shadow IT,” reflecting the deployment of technological solutions outside of the purview of the IT department, is a greater threat than usual in a remote work environment as the temptation for users to find a solution to an immediate need will place them in tension with IT best practices.29 In a remote work environment, IT needs clear channels of communication for recognizing, confronting, and resolving these kinds of business needs in a manner that does not compromise the safety and security of the organization’s data and networks.
  5. Planning for resignations, furloughs, and layoffs: Many organizations have not had to plan for how to handle employee departures outside of the normal office environment. Terminating employee access to the network, retrieving employer-provided devices, and ensuring the return and disposal of the employer’s data now present a host of new challenges, especially for companies whose employees may have become geographically dispersed after the transition to the work from home environment. If the Human Resources department hasn’t been confronted with these issues to date, then now is the time to put together a plan.

If you are interested in more information on this topic, check out our recent alert: Nonprofits Evaluate Risks of Pandemic-Driven Technology, which discusses how nonprofit organizations can limit the risks associated with pandemic-driven technology.


1 Chip Cutter, Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, WALL ST. J. (July 24, 2020),

2 Id.
3 Id.
4 Carrie Rubinstein, Beware: Remote Work Involves These 3 Cyber Security Risks, FORBES (April 10, 2020),
5 Id.; Cutter, supra note 1.
6 Id.
7 Peter Henderson et al., Hacking Against Corporations Surges as Workers Take Computers Home, U.S. NEWS (April 17, 2020),
8 Kanishka Singh et al., Zoom Participant Numbers Top 300 million Despite Growing Ban List, Shares Hit Record (April 23), REUTERS (April 23, 2020),
9 Id.
10 Id.
11 See Rubinstein, supra note 4.
12 CYBERSECURITY & INFRASTRUCTURE SECURITY AGENCY, Cybersecurity Resources for COVID-19, U.S. DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY, (last visited July 17, 2020).
13 Anurag Maan, Google Sees Resurgence in State-Backed Hacking, Phishing Related to COVID-19, REUTERS (May 28, 2020),
14 Id.
15 Id.
16 Id.
17 See Henderson et al., supra note 7.
18 Id.
19 Christina Quaine, Taking a Closer Look at Remote Workplace Fraud Vulnerabilities: How to Mitigate Escalating Threats, SECURITY MAGAZINE (June 11, 2020),
20 Id.
21 Id.
22 Id.
23 Id.
24 Id.
25 Michelle F Davis, Max Abelson, and Donal Griffin, Greed and Fear Collide: Wall Street Calls Traders Back to Office, BLOOMBERG (April 7, 2020), (last visited Sept. 13, 2020) (“The firm later ditched the plan and sent people home, where employees received an important email from a top executive: ‘Highly Confidential: COVID-19 - Staff Infection List.’ Workers who clicked the attachment realized it was an anti-phishing test on behalf of the compliance team and that they had failed it.”); World Health Organization, Beware of criminals pretending to be WHO, (last visited Sept. 13, 2020); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19-Related Phone Scams and Phishing Attacks, (last visited Sept. 13, 2020).
26 Sam Greengard, The Perimeter is Dead (April 30, 2018); (last visited Sept. 13, 2020); Tim Brown, Patrolling the New Cybersecurity Perimeter (June 21, 2019); (last visited Sept. 13, 2020); Jayne Lytel, Why traditional network perimeter security no longer protects (June 9, 2020); (last visited Sept. 13, 2020).
27 Susan Bradley, How to minimize the risks of split tunnel VPNs (April 29, 2020), (last visited Sept. 13, 2020).
28 For an idea of where to begin, see: Kristen Setera, FBI Warns of Teleconferencing and Online Classroom Hijacking During COVID-19 Pandemic (March 30, 2020), (last visited Sept. 13, 2020).
29 For example, users may seek to find software solutions to the problem of how to scan documents in a remote work environment and some of these software solutions may host data on the cloud or in some other fashion that is incompatible with the organization’s policies and procedures.

Information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice or opinion or as a substitute for the advice of counsel. The articles by these authors may have first appeared in other publications. The content provided is for educational and informational purposes for the use of clients and others who may be interested in the subject matter. We recommend that readers seek specific advice from counsel about particular matters of interest.

Copyright © 2020 Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, LLP. All rights reserved.

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