2020 in review: January to June

Unprecedented. Challenging. In it together. New normal. Now more than ever.

It’s hard to summarise 2020 without resorting to cliché, considering that our experiences have been so universal and subject to such little variety.

There was toilet roll hoarding, Zoom quizzes, doomscrolling ONS figures, homeschooling, more Zoom quizzes, pubs closing, pubs reopening, and debates about what constitutes a substantial meal. Oh, and did we mention the Zoom quizzes?

However, one industry remained as innovative and thriving as ever: cyber crime.

IT Governance has recorded more than 1,000 publicly disclosed cyber security incidents so far this year and 20 billion breached records. These figures dwarf last year’s totals and show that criminal hackers were one of the few winners of 2020.

To close out the year, we’ve gathered some of the most notable stories from the past 12 months. You can find the first part below, with the second part to follow next week – make sure you’re subscribed to our Weekly Round-up to catch it.


January

What a simple time January 2020 was. All we had to worry about was a massive data breach at Microsoft that potentially affected up to 250 million people.

Microsoft suffers data breach affecting up to 250 million people

The information, which included email addresses, IP addresses and support case details, was held on leaky Elasticsearch servers.

Microsoft was alerted to the vulnerability on New Year’s Eve, and worked quickly to resolve the error, preventing what could have otherwise been a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Travelex wasn’t so lucky. The currency exchange firm was crippled by ransomware the same day, but the damage caused by the attack, combined with the effects of the pandemic, forced the company into administration seven months later.

You can see more incidents from January in our list of data breaches and cyber attacks.


February

The top story from February was the long-awaited conclusion to a series of data breaches that Yahoo experienced between 2012 and 2016.

Lawyers are the real winners in the Yahoo data breach compensation case

The company, now owned by Verizon, agreed to pay $117.5 million (about £91 million at the time) in compensation to users whose personal data was leaked.

That sounded promising until you saw how complicated the renumeration process was, along with the fact that the lawyers overseeing the case awarded themselves 25.5% of the payout, which equates to $30 million (about £23 million at the time).

Meanwhile, there were whispers in Asia that cyber criminals were launching attacks based on a virus outbreak in Wuhan. More on that later.

You can see more incidents from February in our list of data breaches and cyber attacks.


March

And so it began. After lockdowns in most of Asia – followed by Italy, France, Germany and several other European countries – the inevitable finally happened in the UK.

Amid the uncertainty about how the pandemic would affect us, cyber security experts warned that cyber criminals would use this opportunity for their own gain.

Hackers exploit coronavirus fears as cyber attacks soar

Organisations scrambled to set up remote working capabilities and bolster their defences, while criminals sent a barrage of attacks targeting individuals and organisations.

Everything from emails regarding hygiene protocols to coronavirus conspiracy theories became cause for suspicion.

As the year went on, scammers got even more adventurous, tricking people into buying fake pets, forging supermarket vouchers and targeting the global supply chain for a COVID-19 vaccine.

You can see more incidents from March in our list of data breaches and cyber attacks.


April

Cyber criminals weren’t the only winners of the pandemic. There was also Zoom.

In December 2019, the video conferencing software had 10 million daily users. By April 2020, that figure hit 300 million.

Indeed, one of the biggest mysteries of 2020 is why Zoom became so popular, given that there are plenty of similar services that are easier to use, that don’t require an account and that haven’t been accused of selling your personal data.

Is Zoom safe to use?

Nonetheless, Zoom became one of the most ubiquitous services of the year – even when it became embroiled in dozens of cyber security and data privacy issues.

These include, but are not limited to, vulnerabilities that enabled people to steal passwords, take over microphones, “Zoom-bomb” attendees, plant malware and steal users’ personal information.

Zoom hurried to address the myriad issues, which – as Bloomberg’s Tae Kim argues – were not entirely the fault of the organisation’s security team.

“Much of its problems stem from the unintended consequences of when demand explodes in unexpected ways,” Tae wrote.

“Originally founded in 2011 for corporate clients, Zoom’s software is now being used in situations it was never designed for.”

Tae also noted that the organisation was slow to recognise the changing demands of its users, many of whom weren’t familiar with the security features that would have prevented many of these issues.

Yet the problems continue. In November, the Federal Trade Commission announced that Zoom “engaged in a series of deceptive and unfair practices that undermined the security of its users”, ordering the organisation to implement new processes.

You can see more incidents from April in our list of data breaches and cyber attacks.


May

In May, 9 million easyJet customers had their data stolen in a sophisticated cyber attack.

9 million people affected by easyJet cyber attack

The budget airline said that criminal hackers accessed a database containing email addresses and travel details. They also made off with the payment card details of 2,208 customers.

As with many cyber attacks, the danger was not simply fraud – although that was certainly the primary concern for the customers whose financial data had been stolen – but also the threat of victims being subjected to phishing scams.

It was an ill-timed blow for easyJet, which saw its share price decrease threefold amid the coronavirus pandemic. But despite the breach, the airline navigated the incident without suffering significant reputational damage.

You can see more incidents from May in our list of data breaches and cyber attacks.


June

In June, the BBC published findings about a growing trend of state-sponsored cyber espionage.

COVID-19 and its effects on cyber espionage and national security

It found that governments across the world had gathered teams of experts to address the cyber security implications of COVID-19 as early as January.

This wasn’t limited to the big players, such as Russia, the US, Iran and North Korea. Many less-active states were using cyber espionage more aggressively, particularly given the lockdown restrictions and the limits on traditional spying methods.

John Hultquist, Director of Threat Analysis at FireEye, said: “It’s a free-for-all out there – and with good reason – you don’t want to be the intelligence agency that doesn’t have a good answer for what’s going on.”

Only a few days after the BBC published the investigation, the Australian government confirmed that it had been hit by a series of ongoing, sophisticated cyber attacks.

The nature of the attacks – targeting public-facing infrastructure and essential services – suggested that the perpetrator was trying to disrupt systems or steal government data. 

But who could worry about that when infection rates in the UK were at their lowest since lockdown began, the UK was finally trialling its track and trace app, and pubs and cafés were set to reopen?

The worst of the pandemic was finally behind us. Right?

You can remind yourself of what happened with the track and trace app, along with the rest of the year’s cyber security highlights, in part 2 of our review of the year.

You can also see more incidents from June in our list of data breaches and cyber attacks.