As cyber threats increase, cyber defense practices improve to battle the threat.
If you know there is a threat of someone stealing your car, you lock it or park it in your garage. Maybe even put an alarm on it or use a system like LoJack in case it is stolen so it can be recovered.
Just as you take precautions to prevent car theft and recover it if it is stolen, cyber security professionals are kept up at night with ways to prevent and even recover from ransomware attacks.
The first step is to keep it from even happening. In the early days of ransomware attacks, cyber criminals would use malware to gain access to your computer or your network. They would lock and encrypt your data. The cyber attacker would then demand a ransom to regain access to your data (i.e., to receive the decryption key). However, even if the ransom is paid, oftentimes, the decryption is not completely successful, and not all data is recoverable. Plus, surprisingly, not all criminals can be trusted to give you the key.
The FBI tells victims NOT to pay a ransom because this does not stop the criminals. If ransomware attacks are profitable, they will continue to do it.
The defense to this is to keep them out of your network in the first place. This could be anti-virus, firewalls, EDR, and other technologies – plus anti-phishing tools and training.
Cyber security experts then began to prioritize backups of data and systems so that even if you are locked out of your network and lose access to your data, you can start from scratch and restore from backups. Problem solved. But not for long.
Double Extortion was born. This is a tactic whereby the data is encrypted and exfiltrated (downloaded). Now, even though you have backups, your information is in the hands of the criminal. The ransom demand is no longer about getting a decryption key, but it is about paying the attacker not to release or publish sensitive information they have stolen from your system.
We have recently seen a third level of threat from ransomware, which has been deemed Triple Extortion. In this tactic, the ransomware groups not only encrypt files and extract data, they also threaten to launch a distributed denial-of-service (DDoD) attack causing a disruption of normal operations. Added pressure from encryption, the threat of data release, and DDoS attack is intended to push the victim to pay the ransom.
The official guidance is still not to pay the ransom. However, when the information is personal data or even trade secrets, it is a tough decision. This led to another evolution in the tactics of the ransomware groups. Pressure from stakeholders.
Stakeholders may be actual shareholders who don’t want negative publicity of a ransomware attack on a company in which they own stock or they may be customers/clients whose information is at risk. The ransomware group will contact them (which is easy because they have downloaded their contact information in the attack) and tell them that their data will be released if the organization does not pay the ransom. The added pressure from those with a vested interest may be enough to make them pay.
Earlier this month, Bluefield University in Virginia was hit with a ransomware attack. In addition to stealing data, the ransomware group accessed the university’s alert texting system and sent a message to the students and faculty that they had access to their information and would post it on the dark web if the university did not pay the ransom.
Once again, we see the evolution that it is no longer just the data they went after but also the alert system to use to their advantage. What if that system were a county’s 911 system? That would be pressure for sure on a county judge or fiscal court to pay a ransom!
The keys are to prevent becoming a victim and to have measures in place to respond if you do. This includes backups; limiting your attack surface; monitoring traffic; using technologies, processes, and physical security; and documenting incident response plans and practicing them.