Record levels of cyber attacks were recorded last year – with unscrupulous criminals targeting organisations working on Covid-19 research.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre recorded 777 incidents between August 2020 and September 2021, up from 723 the year before. Of these, around 20% of affected organisations had some link to the healthcare sector – including hospitals and vaccine research centres.

In total, the NCSC received more than 5.9 million reports from the public of malicious content, related to more than 53,000 scams. The result was a takedown of some 96,500 URLs.

Arguably the highest profile case involved the University of Oxford, where the AstraZeneca vaccine was developed. Here, the NCSC intervened when it detected a ransomware attack that – if successful – had the potential to significantly disrupt to the UK’s pandemic response.

More generally, the NCSC discovered a further rise in ransomware attacks, where hackers access and then encrypt business-critical data, before demanding a ransom for it to be unlocked. These have been especially lucrative for cyber criminals, with ransomware technology being relatively easy to access on the dark web, and companies willing to pay up to try and get their data back – whilst also trying to avoid the fallout that comes when personal data is lost or stolen.

However, the data is rarely restored in the same condition, with some ransomware tools put together so shoddily that the data ends up scrambled anyway. Furthermore, businesses that pay up only embolden hackers to continue exhorting other businesses – all the while giving them the resources needed to step up operations.

NCSC chief executive, Lindy Cameron, warned that ransomware is now “the most immediate cyber security threat to UK businesses” and therefore “should be higher on the boardroom agenda”. She went on to say the previous 12 months had been “hugely challenging”, but that she was proud of how the NSCS staff reacted. Among the response was the offer of extended support to improve online security for around 3 million people working in the healthcare sector.