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Extortion, precision malware, and ruthless scams. Read the State of Malware 2021 report

Last year, threat actors took advantage of the COVID-19 public health crisis in a way previously considered unimaginable, not only preying on uncertainty and fear during the initial months of the global pandemic, but retooling attack methods, reneging on promises, strengthening malware, and extorting victims to the tune of $100 million—and that was without the threat of ransomware encryption.

In short, in 2020, cyberthreats evolved.

Today, we are showing readers just what that evolution looked like, in our State of Malware 2021 report. This report provides our most comprehensive analysis of last year’s malware trends, with breakdowns by malware category, malware type, operating system, region, industry, and more.

Here are key takeaways of what we learned in 2020:

  • Malware detections on Windows business computers decreased by 24% overall, but detections for HackTools and Spyware on Windows increased dramatically—by 147% and 24%, respectively
  • Among the top five threats for both businesses and consumers were the Microsoft Office software cracker KMS, the banking malware Dridex, and BitCoinMiners; business detections for KMS and Dridex rose by 2,251% and 973%, respectively
  • Detections for the most notorious business threats Emotet and Trickbot fell this year by 89% and 68% respectively, although the operators behind these threats still pulled off several big attacks in 2020
  • A new ransomware called Egregor came onto the scene in late 2020, deployed in attacks against Ubisoft, K-Mart, Crytek, and Barnes & Noble
  • Overall Mac detections decreased by 38%, though Mac detections for businesses increased 31%
  • Malware accounted for just 1.5% of all Mac detections in 2020—the rest can be attributed to Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs) and Adware
  • ThiefQuest tricked many researchers into believing it was the first example of ransomware on macOS since 2017, but the malware was hiding its real activity of massive data exfiltration. It accounted for more than 20,000 detections in 2020
  • On Android, HiddenAds—which aggressively pushes ads to users—racked up 704,418 detections, an increase of nearly 149%
  • We twice uncovered pre-installed malware on phones provided by Assurance Wireless through the US government-funded Lifeline Assistance program
  • Stalkerware-type app detections—which include detections for Monitor apps and Spyware apps on Android—surged in conjunction with shelter-in-place orders that governments began implementing in February and March: Monitor app detections rose from January to December by 565%; Spyware app detections rose across the same time period by 1,055%
  • The agriculture industry suffered through a 607% increase in malware detections, while detections in the food and beverage industry increased by 67%
  • More traditional targets, such as manufacturing, healthcare and medical, and automotive all experienced drops in detections by varying degrees—education fell 17%, healthcare dropped 22%, and the automotive industry decreased by 18%

As you can see from these findings, 2020 proved to be a tumultuous year.

When COVID-19 cases first began spiking in several countries, cybercriminals preyed upon people’s fears mercilessly, with an avalanche of coronavirus phishing emails and scams.

Around the world, governments tried to stop their hospitals from being overwhelmed by ordering lockdowns, stay-in-place orders, and school closures. By April 2020, half the world’s population had been asked or ordered to stay at home. As entire businesses switched to remote working, IT teams found themselves trying to fit months-long projects into days, with security an unfortunate but understandable casualty.

Faced with a new landscape, cybercriminals ditched some old tactics and placed a new emphasis on gathering intelligence. And as people adapted to their “new normal,” scammers exploited their isolation with a resurgence in tech support scams. New adversaries crawled out of the woodwork, too. April’s global shutdown was accompanied by a staggering rise in the use of stalkerware, a short-hand term for the type of mobile monitoring and spyware apps that are sometimes deployed by abusive partners.

The pandemic also created new challenges to online privacy. As countries turned to digital contact tracing to contain outbreaks, a stark dichotomy emerged: It is possible for people to have personal privacy or effective contact tracing, but probably not both. Around the world, the progress of privacy-preserving legislation slowed to a crawl.

And what began as a global health crisis soon became a global economic crisis too, with almost no business left unscathed. The fate of different industry sectors was mirrored in the number of cyberattacks they suffered. As the manufacturing and automotive sectors contracted, attackers simply turned their faces to agriculture and other essential industries instead. Ransomware gangs reneged on early promises to stay away from hospitals and hit new lows instead, attacking hospitals and medical facilities in organized campaigns

Through it all, there is one form of business that seems to have thrived in 2020 though—the creation and operation of malicious software. The pace of innovation picked up in 2020 as many entirely new malware families emerged. Ransomware gangs continued to learn from each other too, with successful tactics spreading quickly between them. Perhaps the most important new tactic that emerged was “double extortion,” which saw cybercriminal groups extorting more money with threats to leak sensitive data than from decrypting compromised computers.

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that cybercrime stops for nothing. There are no targets, and no opportunities for exploitation, that are beyond the pale.

Thankfully, the year had another lesson for us too: That there are heroes everywhere. The healthcare professionals, teachers and other essential workers rightly deserve the loudest acclaim, but heroes emerged in all areas of life. So, we want to offer an enormous thank you to the unsung army of sysadmins and security professionals who moved mountains in 2020 to keep millions of people safe online as the world around them was turned on its head.

To get the full story, read the State of Malware 2021 report.