That other pandemic...

By Rutger Gooszen

The Corona crisis has once again made us aware of the vulnerability of our (open) society. Yet we have known for much longer that vulnerability to viruses also lurks in an entirely different world; our digital society.

Vulnerability of the digital society 
Computer virus outbreak 
Cybersecurity incident 
Digital lockdown 
Internet restrictions and 1-hour society

On June 13, 2021, in Bucharest, Michael Stoljevic opens his mail program and suddenly something strange happens. Suddenly the login screen of his banking application appears. That's crazy, because he hasn't clicked on anything, right?  He doesn't trust it but his virus scanner didn't catch on. He decides to let it be and sends the mail he opened the mailbox for in the first place: an invitation to his birthday. 

In Amsterdam, the same thing happens to Anne Kwik. Only here a Web page opens from another bank where she is not a customer. A clear case of phishing, she thinks, yet she hasn't clicked on anything, and again her virus scanner hasn't raised an alarm. How is this possible? Anne is an information security specialist so she reports the incident to the National Cyber Security Center's hotline. 

And they are not the only ones, it turns out, that week. In a couple of days, the NCSC gets a storm but they don't understand how this is possible. Is it a leak in the operating system, a particular application that has been hacked, or is it down to a provider's server? With the information society now so tightly knit, there are legions of sources of misery. At first, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. 

In one week, there are now as many as 5,000 reports of people whose login credentials have been cracked in this way. Not everyone is as digitally savvy and careful. And many people are careless about updating their software and virus scanner. 

A more serious incident followed later that week. For at least 40,000 computer users, the screen suddenly goes black and a question mark appears on the screen. No matter what they do, they cannot get their PCs to work again. 

The NCSC has now been in feverish consultation with the centers of other EU countries, and the picture is alarming. More and more computers are becoming infected or unusable and something must be done. A crisis team is being set up. The same thing is happening all over the world. 

On June 20, there is a press conference by the prime minister. The crisis team has advised that as a precautionary measure, Internet traffic should be severely restricted or even completely stopped to prevent further spread. This digital lockdown is necessary according to the NCSC because it is not yet clear exactly how the computer virus is spreading and how it can be combated. It has now been agreed with the major Internet providers that at 8 o'clock that evening the net will be locked down. 

The impact of this measure is enormous. All online stores have suddenly become inaccessible, email no longer works and online streaming services can no longer be used. But things also go wrong in physical life. The logistics systems for food distribution are disconnected from each other, resulting in a lack of insight into inventories and transportation. Suddenly a lot of phone calls have to be made between parties. Fortunately, the 5G network is still usable for telephony, but not for data. 

The next morning there are long lines of people in front of bank branches to hoard cash. After all, no one knows how long Internet banking will be unavailable, and how else will you make payments? And many people cannot work at home or in the office because most companies have put their office automation in the cloud. 

There will be another press conference on June 23. The NCSC, in cooperation with the other countries, has now been able to find out what vulnerabilities there are. The lockdown can be relaxed provided every computer is equipped with updated virus software. No proper software and you are not allowed on the Web! Meanwhile, about 2 million computers are infected in Europe according to antivirus software reports, but there may be many more because accurate measurements are lacking. 

In addition, according to the experts, we should move to a 1 hour per day society for now. A maximum of 1 hour on the Web to avoid the risk of infection and further spread of the (potentially mutating) virus. 

That evening, many households brought the old board game "Mens erger je niet" back from the attic. 

Unthinkable and fiction? We thought so too about the corona pandemic but virologists had warned us before that it would happen one day. 

The same goes for our digital society whose experts keep making calls for organizations to take their information security seriously. Thinking "that won't happen to us" is naive. Perhaps a "Only together do we make the Internet safe" campaign is also necessary. 

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