03/05/2018 10:45 EST | Updated 03/05/2018 10:49 EST

Budget 2018 Takes Cyber Crime Seriously, And So Should Canadians

Government websites, small businesses, school boards, public health organizations — all are potential targets.

The federal Liberal government of Canada in its most recent budget committed more than $500 million to a new cyber security strategy to better combat cyber crime. The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) will receive more than $155 million over five years to create a new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security that consolidates its cyber expertise in one place. The centre's mandate provides Canadian citizens and businesses a single place to turn to for cyber security information. The responsibility for investigating cyber crimes remains with the RCMP.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, left, arrive at the House of Commons before tabling the federal budget in Ottawa, on Feb. 27, 2018.

The federal government wants to enhance its ability to investigate cyber crime, safeguard critical infrastructure and collaborate with financial and energy sectors to strengthen cyber security. The government is increasingly concerned about cyber attacks that expose the personal information of Canadians, the cost to businesses and the threat that puts the country's critical infrastructure at risk.

Why are governments taking notice of cyber crime?

In the past, cyber thieves focused on stealing information or money through schemes like ransomware. More recently, new cyber crimes point to interference by outsiders with the U.S. and other electoral systems. Another new cyber crime is called cryptojacking, which involves an attacker stealing a victim's computing power to mine digital currencies through their web browser. In a short period of time, more than five million attacks globally occurred in the United States, Japan, the U.K., France, Germany and Canada.

Cryptojacking attacks raise security concerns for municipalities that plan to use online voting in elections.

In Feb. 2018, 4,000 websites globally and 200 in Canada experienced cryptojacking attacks. Visitors to these websites had their web browsers hijacked and used to mine a foreign cryptocurrency called Monero. Monero is a more anonymous cryptocurrency than the more popular Bitcoin. The affected websites are a concern for governments, because they target less secure sites like public libraries, municipalities, school boards, public health organizations. Recently, Canadian organizations were attacked, including Ontario's Information and Privacy Commission, the city of Cambridge in Ontario, and the city of Yellowknife in North West Territories.

While users do not lose money, unwanted software is installed on computers that can cause problems. According to a security consultant in Sky News:

"That software could do anything. Sure, right now it's crypto mining software, but maybe the malware author pushes an update and suddenly it's now banking malware and it steals your online banking credentials."

Another reason the Canadian government has invested heavily is that cryptojacking attacks raise security concerns for municipalities that plan to use online voting in elections for the upcoming Ontario election in 2018 and federal election in 2019.

Aleksander Essex, who runs Whisper Lab, a cyber security research group at Western University says cryptojacking attacks are a growing concern because they show how easily government municipal websites can be compromised. He describes a possible future scenario where instead of mining cryptocurrencies for financial gain, criminals might be able to download and steal votes to influence election outcomes. We saw evidence of this outside tampering by Russia in the last U.S. presidential election. Canada and other countries are also concerned about tampering by foreign countries and hackers in future elections.

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Three reasons Canadian businesses should care about cyber crime

1. Smaller organizations are easier targets because they discover breaches later

According to Small Business Trends, between 2011 and 2015, the percentage of total cyber attacks targeting small organizations increased from 15 to 43 per cent of total attacks. Smaller organizations with fewer resources for cyber security are the primary target for cryptojacking and ransomware attacks. Criminals prefer targeting smaller businesses because their goal is to delay being discovered. In most cases, it can take months for a small business to discover they've been hacked.

2. There's a lack internal expertise at many smaller Canadian businesses

According to a 2016 study by the Ponemon Institute, the most common reasons for security deficiencies were the lack of personnel (67 per cent), and the absence of financial resources (54 per cent). The consequence of not lacking skilled security professions is that companies are reactive rather than proactive with problem-solving. They cannot do long-term planning and instead default to a "break/fix" approach to solving problems as a way to manage their technology. This approach results in higher stress and turnover among employees, because they cannot meet deadlines due to workplace stoppages when technology breaks.

The stakes are too high for small business owners, who have spent their life building successful businesses, only to have a cyber breach force them to shut down.

3. One cyber attack is enough to put small Canadian firms out of business

When big organizations or governments are attacked, they experience short-term losses but often recover a few years later. In the case Target's big cyber attack, the stock price and revenue rebounded after just a few years. According to a 2012 study by the National Cyber Security Alliance, 60 per cent of small firms go out of business within six months after a data breach.

The impact is so dire for SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses) because they lack the security infrastructure of larger firms. They have not thought about security measures like systems monitoring, intrusion detection and event management systems. By the time a breach is discovered, real damage has already been done.

If big business and governments are getting serious about cyber crime, it stands to reason that SMBs must also follow. Cyber thieves target the lowest-hanging fruit and most vulnerable, which today are SMBs.

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The stakes are too high for small business owners, who have spent their life building successful businesses, only to have a cyber breach force them to shut down because they are not prepared. The best approach an SMB can take is to get help for their specific challenges from IT security firms that have a proven track record working with similar businesses.

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