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Covid-19 and cybersecurity: Technology and risk in Aotearoa

By Mitchell Hageman
Fri 25 Mar 2022

Have you been caught out by a pesky message from an unknown email address claiming you have Covid-19 and need to buy a vaccine? Or perhaps you've received one asking for details of your vaccine passport from someone masquerading as the Ministry of Health? Maybe you're unsure of the security aspects involved in NZ Covid related technology, or are struggling to figure out who sees your data and when?

As New Zealand adapts to living with Covid-19, they are also having to deal with an increasing number of life-altering technologies, all of which have a substantial risk of creating cybersecurity issues for the public. Not only this, but New Zealanders are sharing their personal data at a rate like never before, and a lot of the time have no idea where it's going and who has access to it.

While many parties involved in the creation of these applications and tools (including the NZ Government) maintain the strictest security protocols and standards, there will always be gaps for threat actors to exploit, and using Covid-19 related lore is a common entry point to do this. Generally, security and privacy are of the utmost importance when creating these tools, but it is up to users to make sure they know how to further protect themselves by fully understanding the dangers and systems in place to prevent them.

On the whole, Covid technology cybersecurity risks generally come under two categories, either app or device-related concerns to do with data security or scams and fraudulent behaviour spread over a number of channels.

Scams, fakes and tricks

The most common threats reported to regulators have often been those involving phishing and misinformation. Netsafe stated in an August 2021 blog that Covid-19 related scams, "all have a common theme in that they are trying to obtain your personal information and financial details." 

CERT NZ stated in its database updates that they had various reports of phone and email fraud, with mainly phishing related online scams such as fake emails and survey links. Email scams commonly ask for survey information where consumers fill in their details, or they are sent fake links about vaccine reminders or called saying that vaccines are "available for sale". These types of links may not only try and get vulnerable information by deceit, but also contain malware or phishing that can create a breach.

Netsafe says in the post that they encourage people to ignore unsolicited communication and to not click on advertisements or webpages promising access to the Covid-19 vaccine. They recommend only getting information from the appropriate official channels and checking with the official organisation you are dealing with directly if you are unsure.

Sean Lyons from the Netsafe Online Safety Operations Centre says the most common goal for scammers using Covid-19 as an entry point is to get financial gain through deception.

"They are effectively trying to part you from your money. They are preying on an idea or concern that people out there in the community have, and they're using that worry and trying to get you to hand your money over as a result."

He says Netsafe works closely with the Ministry of Health and CERT to help prevent damages to the national Covid information programme by spreading awareness and providing support to official channels.

"We often work with the platforms where the scams are perpetrated. In most cases there is a breach of the terms and conditions of the platform involved, so we work very closely with them to bring fraudulent behaviour to their attention."

In terms of advice around keeping secure online in times of Covid-19, Lyons says communication is key, as is being prepared and aware of what constitutes a threat. 

"It's always worth taking the time to breathe and ask someone else what they think is going on in an unfamiliar situation. Due diligence, response, and research are helpful, and the best protection that we have is checking and taking a second not to be pressured."

Netsafe has also released a list of tips and tricks to help spot a scam or breach relating to Covid-19 information so people can become more aware of what would be considered a cybersecurity risk.

They are:

  • Check if there are spelling mistakes in the email (e.g. ofering vs offering).
  • Find out if the Ministry of Health would likely already have the information requested in the form.
  • If there has been no official announcement from the Government, it is likely it is fraudulent.
  • If in doubt, check the Netsafe and CERT NZ websites to see common scams and contact them to report a likely scam.
  • Stay informed about official Covid-19 information (e.g. Vaccine rollout, the tracer app, new government announcements), so you know what information is real.
  • Being asked for passwords is a warning sign, as legitimate organisations will never ask for the passwords to your online accounts, so avoid giving these details.
  • If you are being asked for unusual ways to pay for something such as pre-loaded debit cards, gift cards, bitcoins, iTunes cards or money transfer systems, do not interact.
  • Asking for remote access to your device is not normal procedure for official organisations, so never allow this to happen.
  • Pressured language and out of the blue contact should also be considered a red flag.

Netsafe previously spoke with Dr Jess Berensten-Shaw, an expert in health psychology and decision making, and asked her thoughts on the spread of misinformation around Covid-19. In her interview, she revealed that with the spread of fake news, "knowing whether information is good can be a bit harder, because that's one of the negative effects of too much false information – we don't know who or what to trust."

She also further highlighted that a good way to prevent cyber harm and getting caught up in misinformation is to look for signs of verification on sites.

"You can look for a description of who the people are that have written or provided the information, a code of practice or ethics, some transparency about who funds the site and what their motivations are, or an explanation about why they can be trusted," she said.

Behind the tech: Safety matters

A lot goes into making a secure app to be used by 5 million people. Under the pressure of government contract agreements, it is a big ask to deliver a technology solution that will change the way people go about their daily lives. 

RUSH Digital, a software company in Auckland, tackled this challenge head-on by being an instrumental part of our Covid-19 electronic response through their Covid Tracer technology. They worked closely with the Ministry of Health to ensure that the technology used was safe and effective, ensuring the privacy and security of all New Zealanders.

"RUSH Digital was awarded the contract to develop the Covid Tracer App through a competitive tender process. Data security and privacy protection were requirements specified in the request for tender," says a Ministry spokesperson.

"It is important to note the Covid -19 tracer app does not send any information to the Ministry of Health, or any other organisation public or private, about which QR codes are scanned, who scanned them, or where they were scanned, but the fact that a QR code was scanned is registered with the Ministry.

"NZ Covid Tracer has been endorsed by the Privacy Commissioner because it’s been designed to protect the privacy of everyone who uses it. NZ Covid Tracer has also been through independent security testing."

The spokesperson also emphasised that the data from your digital diary and Bluetooth tracing is kept in your phone, and you will only be asked to share it with health officials if you test positive for Covid and that is under your control.

When looking at the security protocols and systems in the app itself, the spokesperson said the app uses a number of known systems to prevent breaches. 

"The app leverages standard security protections offered by the iOS and Android operating systems, including app sandboxing and database encryption." A full list of those can be found here.

And while the app prioritises safety and security, users should also be alert and follow general cyber safety guidelines as well.

"Device security is the most important consideration. Keep your device secure by not sharing any passwords or other log-in details with others, only download content from trusted sources and take care when voluntarily sharing any data, either within the Covid Tracer app or other data stored on your device," says the spokesperson.

The future?

Although mandates and laws will slowly be phased out, that doesn't mean we will stop relying on technology. Covid will still continue to have an online presence for years to come, with Covid related cyber threats still presenting a danger to people on a daily basis. It is clear that it is important to be prepared, informed and aware so that you can be one step ahead of the game. Communication is still a vital first response in our fight against Covid.

Public Interest Journalism Fund logo
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
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