Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially increased the cybersecurity risks faced by individuals and employers, according to an expert panel.

The panel, made of industry stakeholders and experts from the University of Waterloo, warned that Canadians in all areas are at increased risk of having their personal and corporate information captured and exploited during pandemics.

"Because so many people are glued to the Internet 24/7, including school kids, we've seen the exponential increase in the use of technology such as video conferencing and cloud-based storage," said Maura Grossman, a research professor and Director of Women in Computer Science at Waterloo. "You have lots of people using tools they didn't use before, and there is much more casual dealing with private information that's being exchanged in ways it wouldn't be if we were behind firewalls.

“Important information and corporate information is at much greater risk the longer we stay home and exchange information in more casual ways.”

The Security and data privacy considerations panel was part of Waterloo’s GEDI Rebooting series. It saw experts in computer science, cryptography, public health, privacy and risk and compliance talk about the emerging cybersecurity threats from at home and abroad and the interplay between privacy, public health and workforce education.

Experts included Grossman, Deborah Evans, chief privacy officer at Rogers Communications, Douglas Stebila, associate professor of cryptography at Waterloo, Plinio Morita, assistant professor at Waterloo’s School of Public Health, and Michael Parker, the principal corporate security analyst in governance, risk and compliance at BlackBerry. The panel was moderated by Michele Mosca of Waterloo’s  Institute of Quantum Computing.

"I've noticed fraudsters are getting more and more inventive in finding ways to obtain people's personal information, including things like bill notification messages that look like the real thing but are just phishing scams," said Evans.  "Society is rightfully looking elsewhere in the face of public health concerns, and fraudsters are taking advantage of that; I'm busier now than I've ever been."

It’s an issue that Canada is going to continue to face, and one that will become even more important should Canada elect to automate data collection in the form of contact tracing apps to aid in public health efforts, according to panel members.

“There’s no real consensus on the right approach in this area,” said Parker. "The real question with contact tracing apps is not about anonymizing the data. It's about how many people need to use the app to make it effective, which has no consensus.

"If contact tracing apps are not mandatory then they are unlikely to be effective.”

In learning from the current pandemic and better preparing ourselves for similar events that might lie ahead, panel members had a number of suggestions that individuals, companies and policymakers will want to consider. They include:

  • Ensuring there are transparency and consent on any data that is going to be collected;
  • Doing our best to follow the guidelines of public health officials, with or without the use of assistive technology;
  • Bringing in a wide variety of stakeholders when considering technological solutions, including people from the tech world, privacy experts and lawyers;
  • Ensuring that privacy by design is included in decisions and that privacy is baked into solutions from the onset;
  • Ensure that we have appropriate preparations in place before predictable problems happen.

GEDI’s next webinar is on June 11, when the expert panel will discuss using research to tackle real-world problems.

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