Hacks, ransomware and data privacy dominated cybersecurity in 2021

Be careful out there.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, two star marathoner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise Cybersecurity, Digital Privacy, IoT, Consumer Tech, Running and Fitness Tech, Smartphones, Wearables
Bree Fowler
4 min read

Ransomware grabbed big headlines and big bucks in 2021.

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Cyberattacks grabbed headlines throughout 2021 as massive disruptions affected government agencies, major companies and even supply chains for essential goods like gasoline and meat.

The year started off on a sour security note. In January, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency jointly suggested that Russia was responsible for an attack against SolarWinds, a Texas-based company whose software was used by everyone from the federal government to railroads, hospitals and major tech companies.

The attackers inserted malicious software into an update of SolarWinds' popular Orion IT software products that companies incorporate into their own systems. Thousands of customers installed the tainted update, and cybercriminals were then able to access their systems. The Russian government has denied involvement in the attack.

Ransomware attacks in May hit both Colonial Pipeline, a major pipeline operator, and JBS USA Holdings, a big meat processor. The companies coughed up millions in payments and shut down their operations long enough to drive up the prices of gasoline and meat. Again, Russia was blamed for the attack.

Tech companies weren't immune either. Apple and Facebook had to deal with cyberthreats that endangered the security and privacy of their users. Meanwhile, the same companies wrestled with knotty questions about how much user data, which could be vulnerable in a cyberattack, should be collected.

Here's a quick look at the most important cybersecurity news of 2021:

Ransomware: When the big guys go down, it affects everyone

The year made it painfully obvious that the days of garbage ransomware used by script kiddies are long gone.

Ransomware, which encrypts a computer until victims pay for tools to unlock their data, is big business. Cybercriminals have set their sights on major businesses that will pay big bucks to avoid being shut down.

That's what happened in the headline-grabbing cases of Colonial Pipeline and JBS USA. Both companies forked over millions of dollars in ransom payments via bitcoin, a favorite cryptocurrency, after they found their systems locked up.

The two high-profile attacks were far from the only ransomware cases of 2021.  

Suspected ransomware payments reported by banks and other financial institutions totaled $590 million for the first six months of this year, according to an October report by the Department of the Treasury. The figure easily surpassed the $416 million in suspicious payments reported for all of 2020.

The US government has pledged to step up its approach to fighting computer crimes. In October, the White House convened an international counter-ransomware event that included representatives from more than 30 countries. Group members pledged to share information and work together to track down and prosecute the cybercriminals behind ransomware attacks. 

Notably absent: Russia, which the US and other countries blame for harboring and possibly encouraging the groups behind the attacks. 

A month earlier, in an effort to make it at least a little bit harder to ransom US companies, the Treasury Department said it will sanction cryptocurrency exchanges, insurance companies and financial institutions that facilitate ransomware payments.

Data privacy battles

Apple also found itself at a privacy crossroads in 2021. The iPhone maker was forced to fend off an outside hacking threat that endangered the security and privacy of its users, some of them very high profile, while attempting to find a balance in its own data privacy practices.

In September, Apple issued an emergency patch for the operating systems powering its iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches to close holes that made the devices vulnerable to the Pegasus spyware developed by Israel's NSO Group.

Though the spyware was largely a threat only to high-profile users who could be targeted by nation-state hackers, the vulnerability was a black mark for Apple, which had, for the most part, enjoyed a reputation for being relatively safe from viruses and online attackers.  

Apple also provoked controversy with a proposed feature that would scan its devices for images of child exploitation. Privacy and security experts, as well as other critics, charged that the approach to combating the illicit material was tantamount to creating a back door that could be exploited by governments intent on curbing free expression. Apple, which had previously won plaudits for refusing to crack a terrorist's iPhone, delayed rolling out the feature.

Data breaches keep coming

Data breaches publicly reported in the first nine months of 2021 exceeded the total for all of 2020, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center

Department store chain Neiman Marcus, stock trading platform Robinhood, web host GoDaddy and wireless carrier T-Mobile were among the companies to report data breaches that resulted in customer information being stolen. California Pizza Kitchen and McDonald's both reported breaches that compromised data related to their operations and employees. Cybercriminals stole data from video game company Electronic Arts that included the source code for soccer game FIFA 21.

Most recently, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles confirmed that an October data breach exposed patient records, including names, dates of birth, addresses, insurance identification numbers and clinical data like diagnosis, treatment and prescription information.