How COVID-19 fuelled a surge in malware

How COVID-19 fuelled a surge in malware

2021 saw a massive surge in detections of malware, adware, and Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs). It didn’t matter what the computers were used for or what operating system they ran—across business and home computers, on Windows and on Mac, detections went up, enormously.

Detections of malware on Windows business machines were 143% higher in 2021 than in 2020, and 65% higher on consumer machines.

Windows malware detection totals 2019-2021

Detections of malware, adware, and PUPs on macOS increased almost 220%.

Mac malware, adware and PUP detection totals 2019-2021

The background to this extraordinary jump in detections is the coronavirus pandemic, so we call this surge in detections the “Covid bounce”.

The Covid bounce

In 2020, the recently-discovered novel coronavirus, and the restrictions put in place to slow its progress, caused trillions of dollars of lost economic activity and a mass migration of knowledge workers from offices to homes.

Almost all forms of business suffered—even illegal ones like cybercrime. Crooks were just as likely to get COVID-19 as anyone else, and the targets they preyed upon changed beyond recognition.

Many businesses wound down or folded, and those that didn’t had to upend their IT infrastructure overnight to support working from home. How people worked, where they worked, the tools they used, and the things they cared about were all in flux.

No wonder then, that in 2020, malware detections on Windows business machines fell 24%.

The effect was not spread evenly across all types of malware though. Detections of Emotet and TrickBot collapsed by 89% and 69%respectively, leading some to speculate that while these highly sophisticated forms of malware were extremely effective at permeating corporate networks they may be poorly adapted to exploit the work-from-home environment.

Meanwhile, detections of hacking tools, information stealers, and other malware that could help criminals better understand the transformation in their victims’ environments, increased considerably.

In 2021, as restrictions lifted gradually around the world, and as organisations and the criminals preying on them adapted to remote and hybrid work, detection numbers climbed precipitously.

And they didn’t simply return to the pre-Covid status quo, they soared past 2019’s numbers. In 2021, the detection numbers for business threats were 85% higher than in 2019, and consumer threat detections were 47% higher.

Cryptocurrency values soared in 2021 and, to nobody’s surprise, detections of malware that mines cryptocurrencies increased more than 300 precent.

Adware, spyware, and worms all displayed an enormous bounce back in 2021, climbing 200%, and detections of email threats showed a considerable “Covid bounce” too. But while the old guard of Emotet and TrickBot remained, they were not the presence of old as several new pretenders jostled for position.

It is impossible to say why detections bounced back so alarmingly last year, but the plain fact is that the world now is not the world of 2019. Events like the coronavirus pandemic have far-reaching effects that go far beyond the immediate, obvious and tragic health consequences, affecting all walks of life, even the security of your servers, laptops, and remote workers.

The pandemic accelerated the transition from a bricks-and-mortar to online existence, and for many businesses and services there is no going back.

After a period of adjustment and uncertainty in 2020, cybercrime seems to have emerged supremely well adapted to this new reality.

You can learn more about the Covid bounce and how it changed the outlook for cyberthreats into 2022 and beyond in the Malwarebytes 2022 Threat Review.