Cybersecurity Trends. PHOTO: Cybercrime Magazine.

10 Important Cybersecurity Trends To Watch In 2021

The post-pandemic world will see digital risk gaining momentum

Kumar Ritesh, founder and CEO of CYFIRMA

Singapore – Jan. 17, 2021

Every major event attracts the interest of cybercriminals, be it the Olympics, Hurricane Katrina or government elections, and COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Cybercriminals recognize that during times of fear and uncertainty, such as the ongoing pandemic, people are less discerning about the links they click, and more susceptible to fall prey to cybercrimes.

On a global scale, the pandemic has fueled cyberattacks and we have seen an overall increase by about six times compared with the year before. COVID-19-themed phishing campaigns and other social engineering tactics have seen the highest spike with 1,100 percent increase. Ransomware is the second most-used attack method with a 300 percent increase.

2020 also saw geopolitical tensions escalating as countries adopted a more nationalistic posture. The division and turbulence between major economies such as US-China, US-Russia, and China-India have resulted in a rise of about 400 percent in state-sponsored attacks. Until the global economy reaches a state of stability, growth, collaboration and diplomacy, state-sponsored cyber activities are not likely to taper.

The world has come apart at the seams in 2020 and nations are now striving to rebuild economies. Data breaches and cyberattacks have also reached a new threshold. 2021 will signal a return to a new normal with cyber defenders having to seek new ways to protect people and data. Digitalization and the advent of new technologies will heighten digital risk, create new attack surfaces as well as vulnerabilities. Cybercriminals will look for new types of crown jewels and find innovative ways to breach networks.

CYFIRMA makes the following predictions on emerging cyberthreats that are likely to impact nations and commerce.

1.  New Cyber Playing Field Will Be Drawn

Collaboration, collusion, and commoditization — 2021 will witness these key themes being played out among state-sponsored hacking groups. Nations would further collaborate, join forces, and share resources to target a common enemy.

New and emerging nations have also increased their cyberwarfare capabilities and we will see more cyberattack campaigns originating from these countries. 

Sophisticated state-sponsored cybercriminals will hire other nation cybercriminals to execute their agenda.

There will be a blurring of lines between state and non-state threat actors as more players enter the hacking trade.

Hackers-for-hire marketplaces have seen a rampant increase in activity, and this will result in more prolific attacks in 2021.

Intellectual property, trade secrets and research data will be of particular interest to hackers. State-sponsored cybercriminals will accelerate corporate espionage in support of their national agenda to create competitive advantages for local businesses.

Transactional and user behavioral data will also be high on hackers’ target lists. This type of data will become valuable tools to influence purchase decisions.

Start-ups and young companies who did not consider cybersecurity at the early stage of product development would be subjecting themselves to digital risk and attacks. A tighter security integration throughout the product development process by adopting a left shift approach will lead to better security outcomes. Hackers will be eyeing many of these start-ups as they make easy targets.

2. Cybercrime not Far from Sci-Fi

Hollywood has fed our imagination with hackers orchestrating large scale and highly destructive attacks from a distance. The reality in 2021 may not be too far off. Cyberattacks will accelerate as cybercriminals increase the use of artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies to exact greater impact as well as to maximize their financial gain.

Hackers will install malicious code to manipulate algorithms behavior, such as crypto-mining malware, and turn machines into attack systems.

Attacks become more sophisticated with the rise of 5G, NLP, and quantum computing. New technologies such as 5G and quantum computing will cause a surge in computer processing speed and enable hackers to accelerate attacks to create even greater damage.

3. New Entrant to Cybercrime — Deep Fake Technology

Cybercriminals have started to use face swap and voice impersonation technology as deception techniques. ‘Digital puppets’ are created to fool people into giving up sensitive information or shift mindsets and behaviors.  

In 2021, deep fake technology will be more widely used to cause misinformation and corporate espionage. The technology will manipulate perception and trick victims into taking unintended actions, similar to social engineering attacks, but much more insidious.

4: From Social Engineering to Impersonating Everything

With many companies accelerating their adoption of digital platforms and cloud services, cybercriminals will switch their attack methods to include impersonating IT systems, environments, and ecosystems.

Cybercriminals will learn about new environments and use virtualization and orchestration techniques to create replicas or deceptive environments.  For example, hackers will be able to create a lookalike ERP within an intranet to fool unsuspecting users into divulging confidential information or to collect data for future malicious activities.

5: Cyberattacks will Hit Upstream and Downstream of Supply Chains

Supply chains are getting increasingly complex and hyper-connected. Goods and services are now flowing through digital systems, and a compromise at any stage can have grave impacts to processes both upstream and downstream. There will be an increase in supply chain attacks by state actors. The SolarWinds hack is just the tip of the iceberg as many more cyber intrusions using this attack method are expected.

6. Edge Devices will Receive Even More Attention from Hackers

Edge computing expands the potential attack surface by having sensitive data stored and processed across an extensive variety of systems. When computing power and data is spread across a wide footprint, digital risk associated with perimeter defense, passwords and authentication, data storage, protection, back-up, and retention will present challenges to cybersecurity teams.

In 2021, businesses need to refine cybersecurity strategies to include mitigating risk that comes with the adoption of edge computing.

7. New Cyber Weapons — ‘Multi-morphism’ and New Malware

Changing malware behavior will be hard to rein in. ‘Multi-morphic’ malware will be a reality. State-sponsored threat actor groups are developing malware that cannot be easily detected. This type of ‘multi-morphic’ malware can switch seamlessly across stages of a cyberattack such as reconnaissance, exploit, and exfiltration.

Deciphering the actual behavioral path of such malware will be difficult as it utilizes complex obfuscation techniques based on selected inputs derived from the target’s unique characteristics. It would be hard to identify this type of malware as there is no historical behavior to track.

Even more malicious ransomware attacks will be heading our way. We will witness ransomware attack changing behavior into a four-stage approach:

  1. Infect and install
  2. Exfiltrate data
  3. Demand ransom, name and shame
  4. Leave hidden backdoor tracker with the objective to come back to re-infect again. 

State-sponsored groups will continue to use ransomware as weapons of choice.

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) portals will provide ransomware to low-skilled attackers causing an increase in these types of attacks.

8: Care for Humanity will Take a Backseat as All is Fair Play in Cybercrime

The number of phishing attacks, malware and online scams will continue to rise as we will see even more hackers seeking to profit from people’s fear and anxiety. Phishing attacks will increase in intensity against individuals, small and medium businesses, and government agencies.

Victims will be increasingly lured with COVID-19 themes and related hooks like healthcare payments, government-sponsored relief loans, or vaccine dissemination. Hackers will continue to pilfer intellectual property and public health data by deploying social engineering tactics on people working on COVID-19 related research.

Along the lines of COVID-19 themes, temperature measurements, facial recognition, contact tracing, and location-tracking data will also attract hackers’ attention as they constitute behavioral data that can be used to manipulate populations and communities.

Be it pandemic vaccine or patient data, state-sponsored threat actors and cybercriminals will continue to target hospitals and healthcare providers, particularly with ransomware attacks to exfiltrate Protected Health Information (PHI), research data, or disrupt operations which could lead to loss of human life.

Businesses that do not fully understand their digital risk and remain ill-prepared for cyberattacks will suffer the ramifications beyond financial loss and privacy breach.

9. Remote Workers will Continue to Give Cybercriminals the Best ‘ROI’

As observed in 2020, many data breaches and leaks were the result of remote workers operating an unsecured environment as well as succumbing to phishing attacks. In 2021, cybercriminals will continue to target remote workers to gain entry into corporate systems and steal intellectual property and other confidential data. Resourceful cybercriminals will start hacking into IoTs and IP-enabled home appliances as they find their way into the remote worker’s system.

10. Speed will Lead to More Exposure

During the course of rapid digitalization, cybersecurity was relegated to an afterthought as businesses focused on getting employees, suppliers, partners and customers connected onto a myriad of cloud-based platforms. In 2021, more businesses will suffer the consequence of weak cyber posture as communication and SaaS tools will be further exploited by hackers.

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Kumar Ritesh is the Founder and CEO of CYFIRMA


Headquartered in Singapore and Tokyo, CYFIRMA is a leading threat discovery and cybersecurity platform company. Its cloud-based AI and ML-powered cyber intelligence analytics platform helps organizations proactively identify potential threats at the planningstage of cyberattacks, offers deep insights into their cyber landscape, and amplifies preparedness by keeping the organization’s cybersecurity posture up-to-date, resilient, and ready against upcoming attacks.

CYFIRMA works with many Fortune 500 companies. The company has offices and teams located in Singapore, Japan and India.