Think You Know Ransomware? Think Again

In the last year there has been an endemic use of ransomware on a large scale and at a global level. To put this into context, a recent report from Druva estimated that 4,000 ransomware attacks occur each day, while a report from Verizon ranked ransomware as the number one piece of crimeware used by cybercriminals in 2017.

The National Cyber Security Centre has also identified ransomware as the most common cyber extortion method used by cybercriminals to target UK businesses.

Ransomware is a type of malware that restricts access to a computer or its data and demands money for it to be released. The threat is typically spread via phishing emails, spam campaigns, drive-bys or programs downloaded to a computer by an unwitting user visiting an infected website. 

In May 2017, WannaCry, one of the world’s most publicized ransomware variants caused global panic when it hit the NHS and left hospitals unable to access patient data. 

So, where did ransomware come from, is it a new threat, how is it evolving and, most importantly, what steps can organizations take to protect against it?

The history of ransomware
Ransomware is not new and has been around since 1989 with the first ever documented case being the AIDS Trojan (or PC Cyborg ransomware) created by Joseph Popp, who distributed 20,000 infected floppy disk drives to the participants of the World Health Organizations AIDS Conference.

Since then, ransomware has appeared more frequently due to the amount of money that can be made using the technique.  

In 2017 the same report from Druva estimated that the ransomware industry has quadrupled over the past year, reaching an estimated $1 billion. As a result of the huge financial return on ransomware, cybercriminals are constantly developing new variants in a bid in ensnare more victims and bypass security defenses.

The latest ransomware variants have deployed new strategies for the delivery of the malware. Whilst most ransomware typically requires some sort of user interaction, recent research has demonstrated how hackers have infected systems with WannaCry by exploiting a remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability, which allowed them to infect unpatched systems without user’s interaction. This is something that is usually associated with a worm rather than ransomware.

To pay or not to pay 
One of the key dilemmas an organization faces when infected with ransomware is whether or not to pay the fine. This is particularly true for organizations that do not have a comprehensive back up strategy in place and risk losing access to their files entirely if they do not pay. 

Whilst many law enforcement agencies and security practitioners often advise against paying ransoms for this criminal activity, reports suggest that severe disruption to services and the lack of backups sometimes leads to organizations giving in and paying the criminals for the release of their data.

However, as has been demonstrated in many recent attacks, even when organizations do pay the fine, there is no guarantee they will receive their files back. Additionally, in some cases when an organization opts to the pay the ransom, they only receive part of their data back in return. 

This ultimately means organizations need to assess if paying the fine is worth it at all, when there is absolutely no way to know if the cybercriminals will ever return their files. 

Some businesses also believe that paying the fine makes sense because they believe their data is worth more than the ransom. However, the danger of paying is that they are essentially funding the ransomware industry, which will ultimately make it more profitable for cybercriminals and lead to more attacks.

So, what are the best ways to mitigate a ransomware attack without having to pay the fine?  

Protecting against ransomware
To protect against the tidal wave of ransomware attacks, organizations need to improve their software patching processes. Many organizations, for example the UK NHS, were caught out because they did not update their systems with the relevant patches in time.

Another lesson that can be learned from these events is that vulnerability disclosure practices within the industry need to improve as no single organization can defend against these threats on its own. 

For any organization that does fall victim to a ransomware attack, it is very important to carry out a post incident analysis. This will allow them to analyze how they contained the event and if there are any changes that could be made to improve their response, should a future attack occur.

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