x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Some home truths about the brutal world of hacktivism

Seemingly harmless things in in cyberspace can have serious consequences.

Last month, several prominent UAE academics had their Twitter accounts hijacked. A little while before that, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, fell victim to a similar attack.

These are not isolated cases. There is a rising tide of hacktivism in the UAE and the region at large. A recent study by Gulf Business Machines found that up to 45 per cent of all cyber attacks in the Middle East and North Africa are carried out by so-called hacktivists.

In the UAE, there were more than half a million cyber attacks on internet users in the first three months of this year, according to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). The number of attacks has grown sharply in the past three years, from only 8,400 in 2010 to 530,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Security experts noted during the Cyber Security Conference in Dubai last week that many of these cases could have been prevented if users had regularly updated their antivirus software. They recommended that companies should keep in touch with security research centres in the UAE.

This month, Abu Dhabi police warned companies to be alert following a string of high-cost cyber attacks by international hackers. They said that hackers were able to intercept business communications and payment details, which allowed them to target money transfers, in particular.

These figures and stories are alarming.

For years, online transactions have boosted promising business ventures. But, in the wrong hands, the internet can be used by scammers to persuade individuals to disclose private information about themselves or their bank accounts.

The trend is even more worrying, as experts warn that the increasing usage of the internet on smartphones significantly raises the risks of cyber crime.

The increasing use of social media and smartphones in the workplace has contributed to increased risks of cyber attacks, according to another study by Gulf Business Machines.

The IT company, which has offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, published the findings in June after surveying 485 IT professionals in the UAE and finding that 43 per cent of them had dealt with security breaches in 2012. Two-thirds of respondents said they believed this region was a “prime target” for cyber criminals.

Cyber attacks can do great harm to individuals, precisely because some social network users reveal too much about their personal life, sometimes while chatting online to someone they do not know.

Also, this whole area has many social implications for this country.

Posting personal photos on social media is frowned upon in many parts of UAE society, which places great emphasis on privacy and reputation, especially when it comes to females.

Uploading such images can make women easy targets to internet hackers who could take advantage of private files, photos and videos and use such materials to blackmail and extort money from their victims.

I have heard many stories of young women who fell victim to online hacking after posting their photos on the internet. And now as more and more photo and video sharing applications are available, such as Instagram and Keek, the issue is becoming more pronounced.

Last year, the UAE introduced a detailed and comprehensive cyber crime law that lays out a range of offences that can be committed using the internet, with specific punishments for people found guilty.

But it is difficult to control the internet, as it is a big, amorphous space. Consequently, individuals and organisations should be more aware of how to prevent and detect any attempted cyber attack and report any incident.

We also need to be more careful about what we share online and not pass any personal or financial information while browsing the internet, unless we are sure they are secure and legitimate websites. Experts also recommend regularly changing passwords, updating antivirus software and using secure operating systems.

We should also avoid posting personal information, photos and videos of ourselves on social media that could be used against us. What we might see as harmless in the beginning, could turn out to have serious implications later.

aalmazroui@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui