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What If The Next Pandemic Happened Online?

The internet has been an essential utility in most of our lives for at least a decade now. Anyone aged 30 or above will be able to remember a time where we began to make the transition to a truly globalized society. The internet, and indeed broadband, had been around for a while before high-speed internet became as ubiquitous as it is today.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has made the internet even more important to us all. Because we are so used to having high-speed internet on tap, it is easy to underappreciate how much of a difference it is making to people’s lives right now, especially those who are the most vulnerable. Remember, no matter how much it might suck being stuck at home, there are people who absolutely cannot leave their homes because they are too vulnerable to infections like Covid-19.

The internet is essential for enabling so many of us to work remotely, to enable people to receive grocery deliveries, and to communicate freely and easily with one another. But what would happen if the next pandemic was a digital virus, a virus capable of threatening the integrity of the internet itself – what if the next pandemic happens online?

NotPetya

NotPetya is a serious contender for the most disruptive computer virus ever. Ukraine was the victim of a sequence of cyberattacks by the Russian state. The attack began by taking the radiation monitoring system at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant offline. Over the course of the morning, various other pieces of state infrastructure were pulled offline.

From Ukraine, NotPetya was able to infect computers around the world, once the spread began it was almost impossible to contain. The NotPetya virus, and its WannaCry variant, held Windows PCs around the world to ransom. A number of local governments in the US and the UK were hit and the UK’s NHS was badly hit by WannaCry.

Security researchers ultimately discovered a vaccine. They noticed that by creating a text file on a computer with a specific name, the computer would become immune to NotPetya. The virus scanned for this file before it began encrypting files. If the file was found, NotPetya instantly stopped its encryption routine. This was likely a failsafe feature to ensure that the attacker’s own machines couldn’t become infected.

Putting The Virus In Computer Virus

There is a reason that we refer to malicious computer programs as ‘viruses’. What they do, infecting machines and hijacking their usual operating procedures to turn them against themselves, is akin to what a virus does in the human body. A virus hijacks our cells and disrupts their normal processes so it can spread with impunity.

As computer viruses have grown more sophisticated, they have begun to resemble biological viruses in more ways than one. Whether this is directly inspired by biological viruses or just a coincidence is difficult to say. For both biological viruses and computer viruses, it is best to remain silent and undetected while initially spreading. Once enough systems, computers, components, people, or organs have been infected, the virus can begin exerting its effects.

Computer viruses also adapt as regular viruses do. The key difference here, however, is that there is an intelligent person directing the evolution of a computer virus – a regular virus is dependent upon natural selection, albeit on a much shorter timescale than normal.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things refers to the growing network of IoT devices – devices that are able to connect to one another in the same way that computers do on the internet. This means that inanimate objects, electronic devices, sensors, and everything else electronic can potentially be added to the IoT and can share or relay data from other devices. Companies like Smartproxy make use of these devices to help data scientists with research and marketers with business intelligence campaigns. But not all actors are so benevolent.

Imagine a virus that starts by infecting a single IoT device, then spreads to every device the first device connects to. Maybe not all of them are directly vulnerable, but if the virus can replicate and transmit itself, it could spread at an exponential rate. Well, we have already seen a virus that behaves in exactly that way

What Are The Potential Impacts?

Just as SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) has forced us all to stay inside as much as we can, a computer virus capable of the same rate of spread/infection would inevitably force us to disconnect most of our devices from the internet. The simple act of connecting to the internet would expose devices to an infected network.

This would also mean that we couldn’t simply download a fix for the virus, as it would require us to go online. We would have to either distribute the cure through physical media or set devices to go online by connecting to a specific machine or network that could install its own antivirus before the virus could infect the device.

Is It Likely?

Not only is the emergence of a virus like the one described above likely, it is inevitable. Viruses are becoming more sophisticated by the year, both biological and computer viruses. But with people directing the evolution of computer viruses, and their growing use in espionage, intelligence gathering, and clandestine attacks on foreign nations, there are plenty of motives for people to design a devastating computer virus.

Whether this is achieved by a single “supervirus” – a universal virus that is able to infect multiple device types by adjusting its parameters automatically for the system it infects – or a group of individual viruses used together, it is only a matter of time. Once such a virus hits, it will be able to infect devices from different manufacturers and with different operating systems – it will be everywhere.

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