The concept behind ransomware is simple. An attacker plants malware on your system that encrypts all the files, making your system useless, then offers to sell you the key you need to decrypt the files. Payment is usually in bitcoin (BTC), and the decryption key is deleted if you don’t pay within a certain period. Payments have typically been relatively small—though that’s obviously no longer true, with Colonial Pipeline’s multimillion-dollar payout.
Recently, ransomware attacks have been coupled with extortion: the malware sends valuable data (for example, a database of credit card numbers) back to the attacker, who then threatens to publish the data online if you don’t comply with the request.
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A survey on O’Reilly’s website1 showed that 6% of the respondents worked for organizations that were victims of ransomware attacks. How do you avoid joining them? We’ll have more to say about that, but the tl;dr is simple: pay attention to security basics. Strong passwords, two-factor authentication, defense in depth, staying on top of software updates, good backups, and the ability to restore from backups go a long way. Not only do they protect you from becoming a ransomware victim, but those basics can also help protect you from data theft, cryptojacking, and most other forms of cybercrime. The sad truth is that few organizations practice good security hygiene—and those that don’t end up paying the price.
But what about ransomware? Why is it such an issue, and how is it evolving? Historically, ransomware has been a relatively easy way to make money: set up operations in a country that’s not likely to investigate cybercrime, attack targets that are more likely to pay a ransom, keep the ransom small so it’s easier to pay than to restore from backup, and accept payment via some medium that’s perceived as anonymous. Like most things on the internet, ransomware’s advantage is scale: The WannaCry attack infected around 230,000 systems. If even a small percentage paid the US$300 ransom, that’s a lot of money.
Early on, attacks focused on small and midsize businesses, which often have limited IT staff and no professional security specialists. But more recently, hospitals, governments, and other organizations with valuable data have been attacked. A modern hospital can’t operate without patient data, so restoring systems is literally a matter of life and death. Most recently, we’ve seen attacks against large enterprises, like Colonial Pipeline. And this move toward bigger targets, with more valuable data, has been accompanied by larger ransoms.
Attackers have also gotten more sophisticated and specialized. They’ve set up help desks and customer service agents (much like any other company) to help customers make their payments and decrypt their data. Some criminal organizations offer “ransomware as a service,” running attacks for customers. Others develop the software or create the attacks that find victims. Initiating an attack doesn’t require any technical knowledge; it can all be contracted out, and the customer gets a nice dashboard to show the attack’s progress.
While it’s easy to believe (and probably correct) that government actors have gotten into the game, it’s important to keep in mind that attribution of an attack is very difficult—not least because of the number of actors involved. An “as a service” operator really doesn’t care who its clients are, and its clients may be (willingly) unaware of exactly what they’re buying. Plausible deniability is also a service.
How an attack begins
Ransomware attacks frequently start with phishing. An email to a victim entices them to open an attachment or to visit a website that installs malware. So the first thing you can do to prevent ransomware attacks is to make sure everyone is aware of phishing, very skeptical of any attachments they receive, and appropriately cautious about the websites they visit. Unfortunately, teaching people how to avoid being victimized by a phish is a battle you’re not likely to win. Phishes are getting increasingly sophisticated and now do a good job of impersonating people the victim knows. Spear phishing requires extensive research, and ransomware criminals have typically tried to compromise systems in bulk. But recently, we’ve been seeing attacks against more valuable victims. Larger, more valuable targets, with correspondingly bigger payouts, will merit the investment in research.
It’s also possible for an attack to start when a victim visits a legitimate but compromised website. In some cases, an attack can start without any action by the victim. Some ransomware (for example, WannaCry) can spread directly from computer to computer. One recent attack started through a supply chain compromise: attackers planted the ransomware in an enterprise security product, which was then distributed unwittingly to the product’s customers. Almost any vulnerability can be exploited to plant a ransomware payload on a victim’s device. Keeping browsers up-to-date helps to defend against compromised websites.
Most ransomware attacks begin on Windows systems or on mobile phones. This isn’t to imply that macOS, Linux, and other operating systems are less vulnerable; it’s just that other attack vectors are more common. We can guess at some reasons for this. Mobile phones move between different domains, as the owner goes from a coffee shop to home to the office, and are exposed to different networks with different risk factors. Although they are often used in risky territory, they’re rarely subject to the same device management that’s applied to “company” systems—but they’re often accorded the same level of trust. Therefore, it’s relatively easy for a phone to be compromised outside the office and then bring the attacker onto the corporate network when its owner returns to work.
It’s possible that Windows systems are common attack vectors just because there are so many of them, particularly in business environments. Many also believe that Windows users install updates less often than macOS and Linux users. Microsoft does a good job of patching vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, but that doesn’t do any good if updates aren’t installed. For example, Microsoft discovered and patched the vulnerability that WannaCry exploited well before the attacks began, but many individuals, and many companies, never installed the updates.
Preparations and precautions
The best defense against ransomware is to be prepared, starting with basic security hygiene. Frankly, this is true of any attack: get the basics right and you’ll have much less to worry about. If you’ve defended yourself against ransomware, you’ve done a lot to defend yourself against data theft, cryptojacking, and many other forms of cybercrime.
Security hygiene is simple in concept but hard in practice. It starts with passwords: Users must have nontrivial passwords. And they should never give their password to someone else, whether or not “someone else” is on staff (or claims to be).
Two-factor authentication (2FA), which requires something in addition to a password (for example, biometric authentication or a text message sent to a cell phone) is a must. Don’t just recommend 2FA; require it. Too many organizations buy and install the software but never require their staff to use it. (76% of the respondents to our survey said that their company used 2FA; 14% said they weren’t sure.)
Users should be aware of phishing and be extremely skeptical of email attachments that they weren’t expecting and websites that they didn’t plan to visit. It’s always a good practice to type URLs in yourself, rather than clicking on links in email—even those in messages that appear to be from friends or associates. Users should be aware of phishing and be extremely skeptical of email attachments that they weren’t expecting and websites that they didn’t plan to visit. It’s always a good practice to type URLs in yourself, rather than clicking on links in email—even those in messages that appear to be from friends or associates.
Backups are absolutely essential. But what’s even more important is the ability to restore from a backup. The easiest solution to ransomware is to reformat the disks and restore from backup. Unfortunately, few companies have good backups or the ability to restore from a backup—one security expert guesses that it’s as low as 10%. Here are a few key points:
- You actually have to do the backups. (Many companies don’t.) Don’t rely solely on cloud storage; backup on physical drives that are disconnected when a backup isn’t in progress. (70% of our survey respondents said that their company performed backups regularly.)
- You have to test the backups to ensure that you can restore the system. If you have a backup but can’t restore, you’re only pretending that you have a backup. (Only 48% of the respondents said that their company regularly practiced restoring from backups; 36% said they didn’t know.)
- The backup device needs to be offline, connected only when a backup is in progress. Otherwise, it’s possible for the ransomware attack to encrypt your backup.
Don’t overlook testing your backups. Your business continuity planning should include ransomware scenarios: how do you continue doing business while systems are being restored? Chaos engineering, an approach developed at Netflix, is a good idea. Make a practice of breaking your storage capability, then restoring it from backup. Do this monthly—if possible, schedule it with the product and project management teams. Testing the ability to restore your production systems isn’t just about proving that everything works; it’s about training staff to react calmly in a crisis and resolve the outage efficiently. When something goes bad, you don’t want to be on Stack Overflow asking how to do a restore. You want that knowledge imprinted in everyone’s brains.
Keep operating systems and browsers up-to-date. Too many have become victims because of a vulnerability that was patched in a software update that they didn’t install. (79% of our survey respondents said that their company had processes for updating critical software, including browsers.)
An important principle in any kind of security is “least privilege.” No person or system should be authorized to do anything it doesn’t need to do. For example, no one outside of HR should have access to the employee database. “Of course,” you say—but that includes the CEO. No one outside of sales should have access to the customer database. And so on. Least privilege works for software too. Services need access to other services—but services must authenticate to each other and should only be able to make requests appropriate to their role. Any unexpected request should be rejected and treated as a signal that the software has been compromised. And least privilege works for hardware, whether virtual or physical: finance systems and servers shouldn’t be able to access HR systems, for example. Ideally, they should be on separate networks. You should have a “defense in depth” security strategy that focuses not only on keeping “bad guys” out of your network but also on limiting where they can go once they’re inside. You want to stop an attack that originates on HR systems from finding its way to the finance systems or some other part of the company. Particularly when you’re dealing with ransomware, making it difficult for an attack to propagate from one system to another is all-important.
Attribute-based access control (ABAC) can be seen as an extension of least privilege. ABAC is based on defining policies about exactly who and what should be allowed to access every service: What are the criteria on which trust should be based? And how do these criteria change over time? If a device suddenly moves between networks, does that represent a risk? If a system suddenly makes a request that it has never made before, has it been compromised? At what point should access to services be denied? ABAC, done right, is difficult and requires a lot of human involvement: looking at logs, deciding what kinds of access are appropriate, and keeping policies up-to-date as the situation changes. Working from home is an example of a major change that security people will need to take into account. You might have “trusted” an employee’s laptop, but should you trust it when it’s on the same network as their children? Some of this can be automated, but the bottom line is that you can’t automate security.
Finally: detecting a ransomware attack isn’t difficult. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense: encrypting all your files requires a lot of CPU and filesystem activity, and that’s a red flag. The way files change is also a giveaway. Most unencrypted files have low entropy: they have a high degree of order. (On the simplest level, you can glance at a text file and tell that it’s text. That’s because it has a certain kind of order. Other kinds of files are also ordered, though the order isn’t as apparent to a human.) Encrypted files have high entropy (i.e., they’re very disordered)—they have to be; otherwise, they’d be easy to decrypt. Computing a file’s entropy is simple and for these purposes doesn’t require looking at the entire file. Many security products for desktop and laptop systems are capable of detecting and stopping a ransomware attack. We don’t do product recommendations, but we do recommend that you research the products that are available. (PC Magazine’s 2021 review of ransomware detection products is a good place to start.)
In the data center or the cloud
Detecting ransomware once it has escaped into a data center, whether in the cloud or on-premises, isn’t a fundamentally different task, but commercial products aren’t there yet. Again, prevention is the best defense, and the best defense is strong on the fundamentals. Ransomware makes its way from a desktop to a data center via compromised credentials and operating systems that are unpatched and unprotected. We can’t say this too often: make sure secrets are protected, make sure identity and access management are configured correctly, make sure you have a backup strategy (and that the backups work), and make sure operating systems are patched—zero-trust is your friend.
Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud all have services named “Identity and Access Management” (IAM); the fact that they all converged on the same name tells you something about how important it is. These are the services that configure users, roles, and privileges, and they’re the key to protecting your cloud assets. IAM doesn’t have a reputation for being easy. Nevertheless, it’s something you have to get right; misconfigured IAM is at the root of many cloud vulnerabilities. One report claims that well over 50% of the organizations using Google Cloud were running workloads with administrator privileges. While that report singles out Google, we believe that the same is true at other cloud providers. All of these workloads are at risk; administrator privileges should only be used for essential management tasks. Google Cloud, AWS, Azure, and the other providers give you the tools you need to secure your workloads, but they can’t force you to use them correctly.
It’s worth asking your cloud vendor some hard questions. Specifically, what kind of support can your vendor give you if you are a victim of a security breach? What can your vendor do if you lose control of your applications because IAM has been misconfigured? What can your vendor do to restore your data if you succumb to ransomware? Don’t assume that everything in the cloud is “backed up” just because it’s in the cloud. AWS and Azure offer backup services; Google Cloud offers backup services for SQL databases but doesn’t appear to offer anything comprehensive. Whatever your solution, don’t just assume it works. Make sure that your backups can’t be accessed via the normal paths for accessing your services—that’s the cloud version of “leave your physical backup drives disconnected when not in use.” You don’t want an attacker to find your cloud backups and encrypt them too. And finally, test your backups and practice restoring your data.
Any frameworks your IT group has in place for observability will be a big help: Abnormal file activity is always suspicious. Databases that suddenly change in unexpected ways are suspicious. So are services (whether “micro” or “macroscopic”) that suddenly start to fail. If you have built observability into your systems, you’re at least partway there.
How confident are you that you can defend against a ransomware attack? In our survey, 60% of the respondents said that they were confident; another 28% said “maybe,” and 12% said “no.” We’d give our respondents good, but not great, marks on readiness (2FA, software updates, and backups). And we’d caution that confidence is good but overconfidence can be fatal. Make sure that your defenses are in place and that those defenses work.
If you become a victim
What do you do? Many organizations just pay. (Ransomwhe.re tracks total payments to ransomware sites, currently estimated at $92,120,383.83.) The FBI says that you shouldn’t pay, but if you don’t have the ability to restore your systems from backups, you might not have an alternative. Although the FBI was able to recover the ransom paid by Colonial Pipeline, I don’t think there’s any case in which they’ve been able to recover decryption keys.
Whether paying the ransom is a good option depends on how much you trust the cybercriminals responsible for the attack. The common wisdom is that ransomware attackers are trustworthy, that they’ll give you the key you need to decrypt your data and even help you use it correctly. If the word gets out that they can’t be trusted to restore your systems, they’ll find fewer victims willing to pay up. However, at least one security vendor says that 40% of ransomware victims who pay never get their files restored. That’s a very big “however,” and a very big risk—especially as ransomware demands skyrocket. Criminals are, after all, criminals. It’s all the more reason to have good backups.
There’s another reason not to pay that may be more important. Ransomware is a big business, and like any business, it will continue to exist as long as it’s profitable. Paying your attackers might be an easy solution short-term, but you’re just setting up the next victim. We need to protect each other, and the best way to do that is to make ransomware less profitable.
Another problem that victims face is extortion. If the attackers steal your data in addition to encrypting it, they can demand money not to publish your confidential data online—which may leave you with substantial penalties for exposing private data under laws such as GDPR and CCPA. This secondary attack is becoming increasingly common.
Whether or not they pay, ransomware victims frequently face revictimization because they never fix the vulnerability that allowed the ransomware in the first place. So they pay the ransom, and a few months later, they’re attacked again, using the same vulnerability. The attack may come from the same people or it may come from someone else. Like any other business, an attacker wants to maximize its profits, and that might mean selling the information they used to compromise your systems to other ransomware outfits. If you become a victim, take that as a very serious warning. Don’t think that the story is over when you’ve restored your systems.
Here’s the bottom line, whether or not you pay. If you become a victim of ransomware, figure out how the ransomware got in and plug those holes. We began this article by talking about basic security practices. Keep your software up-to-date. Use two-factor authentication. Implement defense in depth wherever possible. Design zero-trust into your applications. And above all, get serious about backups and practice restoring from backup regularly. You don’t want to become a victim again.
Thanks to John Viega, Dean Bushmiller, Ronald Eddings, and Matthew Kirk for their help. Any errors or misunderstandings are, of course, mine.
- The survey ran July 21, 2021, through July 23, 2021, and received more than 700 responses.