It is no coincidence that hackers have chosen Costa Rica as a target of their attacks, as this nation is one of the region’s most advanced with respect to digital government and the penetration of new technologies.
Many of the basic services the Costa Rican government offers are either internet-based or the information is readily available through servers.
The latest digital government development index from the United Nations placed Costa Rica in the “Very high level of development” section for the first time, ranking number 7 in the Americas and number 56 globally.
Since 2021 the country has had a National Agency of Digital Government, created by Law 9943, whose objective is to implement relevant services and projects for public administration institutions, providing simple, agile, inclusive, transparent and secure access for citizens.
Additionally, at the end of June, the first Community Innovation Laboratory was inaugurated, housed in the Forest Fair Trade Association (Ascojubo) in Guácimo de Limón, aimed at children, adolescents, young people who neither work nor study, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and business people with innovative plans.
It is clear that Costa Rica is tackling the threat of hackers who hold government websites to ransom and demand millions to give them back.
Since last April, cyber criminals have attacked almost 30 state organisations such as the Ministry of Finance and more recently the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS), putting at risk services vital for the population.
According to former president Carlos Alvarado, hackers demanded millions of dollars in exchange for not leaking the information they obtained and restoring the services but the authorities refused to give in to blackmail.
A few days after taking power on 8th of May, President Rodrigo Chaves declared that Costa Rica was at war with cyber criminals and decreed a state of national emergency.
Chaves stated that the cyber-terrorists would not defeat Costa Rica. The Ministry of Finance was one of the public institutions most affected by the hacks. Exiting the virtual tax administration platform forced it to go back to paper forms and long queues built up at banks as people tried to meet their obligations as taxpayers, something that many were unable to do even with that option.
Similarly, computer hackers damaged accesses to the CCSS systems in May, attacked 800 servers and around 9,000 terminals and devices. As a result, they caused serious disruption and cancellations of medical appointments and scheduled surgery in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.
The collection of data on new coronavirus cases was interrupted and it was not possible to determine how many people passed away during that period, which left the authorities blind for over a week.
However, the Fund’s executive chairman, Álvaro Ramos, asserted that the most critical systems could be saved because they were backed up and he added that the lost information was under control.
Although the authorities are still investigating the attacks’ origin, the data points to a transnational group identified as Conti which specialises in ransomware attacks.
Active since 2020, this criminal group’s modus operandi is to steal files and important documents from servers, encrypt them and demand a ransom in exchange for their release.
According to a report by the cybersecurity giant Kaspersky, ransomware is big business and is estimated to affect one company every eleven seconds. The economic damage from the attacks could have reached 20,000 million dollars in 2021. Even if some organisations opt to pay the ransoms demanded by the ransomware, it is not generally recommended, warn Kaspersky.
For one thing, there is no guarantee the attacker will restore the victim’s access to the infected systems and, in addition, paying is a way of encouraging this type of action.
But the antivirus company points out that many organisations do not reveal ransomware attacks or, if they do, they do not go into detail about the attackers’ demands.
The crusade against the government platforms was a reminder to the Costa Rican public of the level of exposure their data has on the Internet and the importance of protecting this information for the country’s security. Hence the war declared against the hackers does not just aim to recover stolen data, but also to guarantee a key sector of the development in which this Central American country, and a large part of the world, has put its hope with a view to the future. PL
(Translated by Philip Walker – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos: Pixabay