Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts a victim’s files and demands payment in order to restore access. It has become an increasingly serious cyber threat in recent years. While ransomware attacks are difficult to prevent entirely, there are steps individuals and organizations can take to avoid becoming victims and minimize the damage.
What is ransomware and how does it work?
Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) designed to deny access to a computer system or data until ransom is paid. It works by encrypting files on a device and demanding payment to provide the decryption key. Attackers often ask for payment in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin because of their anonymity.
Once installed, ransomware encrypts files and displays a ransom note demanding payment within a certain timeframe. If the ransom is not paid in time, the attackers threaten to delete the encryption key, rendering files inaccessible forever. Some ransomware variants also threaten to publish sensitive stolen data if the ransom is not paid.
Ransomware is usually installed when a user clicks on a malicious link, opens an infected file attachment, or through vulnerabilities in outdated software. It can rapidly spread through an organization’s network by exploiting security gaps.
What are the most common ransomware variants?
Some of the most devastating ransomware strains over the past decade include:
- CryptoLocker – One of the earliest ransomware strains, first appearing in 2013. Encrypted files with RSA-2048 encryption.
- CTB-Locker – Emerged in 2014 and pioneered the use of Tor for command and control. Authorities disrupted the botnet in a 2016 operation.
- WannaCry – Notable 2017 attack that exploited the EternalBlue vulnerability in older Windows systems. Caused disruption globally.
- NotPetya – Posed as ransomware but was destructive malware. Caused over $10 billion in damage in 2017.
- Ryuk – Targeted enterprise networks and demanded large ransoms up to millions of dollars. Very profitable for attackers.
- Conti – Ransomware-as-a-service operation that leaked stolen files when ransom wasn’t paid.
- Black Basta – Newer strain in 2022 that pursues ‘triple extortion’, threatening DDoS attacks and using stolen data as additional leverage.
What are some major ransomware attacks?
Some high-profile ransomware attacks over the past 5 years include:
- City of Atlanta – Attack in 2018 disrupted government services and cost around $17 million to recover from.
- Baltimore City – 2019 attack crippled city services for weeks and recovery cost estimated at $18 million.
- Colonial Pipeline – 2021 attack on this major U.S. fuel pipeline led to gas shortages on the East Coast.
- JBS – World’s largest meat supplier was disrupted by 2021 attack, paid $11 million in ransom.
- Kaseya – MSP software provider suffered a major supply chain attack via REvil ransomware, impacting ~1,500 downstream businesses.
- Costa Rica – Conti ransomware attack in 2022 impacted multiple government agencies and public health services.
These examples highlight how ransomware can severely disrupt organizations, cities, infrastructure, and supply chains. Attackers often target victims they know will have difficulty functioning without access to their data.
What makes ransomware so dangerous?
There are several factors that make today’s ransomware a major threat:
- Difficult to prevent – Modern ransomware uses advanced techniques like fileless malware, social engineering, and supply chain attacks to infiltrate networks.
- Fast encryption – Ransomware can rapidly spread across networks, encrypting thousands of files in minutes before defenses can react.
- Two-stage extortion – Many ransomware groups now threaten to publish sensitive stolen data, adding another layer of extortion.
- Hard to recover from – Restoring encrypted files without the decryption key is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
- Lucrative payouts – Ransomware is a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise. High ransom payouts incentivize attackers.
- Limited reporting – Many victims opt not to report attacks to law enforcement, emboldening threat actors.
The potential harm to businesses, infrastructure, and lives make ransomware a dangerous threat that must be taken seriously. The fact that it is profitable for criminals ensures ransomware is here to stay.
How are ransomware attacks evolving?
Ransomware tactics have evolved dramatically in recent years:
- Increasingly targeted at large enterprises and critical infrastructure
- Leveraging tools like Cobalt Strike for network penetration
- Adopting stealth techniques to avoid detection
- Exfiltrating data for double extortion schemes
- Expanding to mobile devices and Internet of Things
- Using cryptocurrency mixers to launder payments
- Offering ransomware-as-a-service to expand reach
- Incorporating wormlike capabilities to spread internally
Ransomware developers are continually innovating. Some alarming ransomware trends include:
- Human-operated ransomware – Actively controlled by attackers to maximize damage
- Ransomware targeting hospitals and healthcare systems
- Ransomware disabling backups or making restoration difficult
- Ransomware threats to publish or auction stolen data
Staying on top of the latest ransomware trends is crucial for defense.
What are best practices for ransomware prevention?
Here are some essential ransomware prevention best practices:
- Keep all software up-to-date with the latest security patches
- Be wary of phishing emails and suspicious links/attachments
- Back up data regularly with at least one offline backup copy
- Use endpoint protection with anti-ransomware capabilities
- Enable firewalls to restrict access
- Use data loss prevention (DLP) tools
- Restrict software installations and privilege use
- Control access to shared drives and admin tools
- Educate employees on cybersecurity awareness
- Disable macros in Microsoft Office files from the internet
- Consider cyber insurance to offset costs
Layered security measures on endpoints, networks, user access, and backups are key to preventing ransomware attacks.
What tools can detect and stop ransomware?
Implementing tools purpose-built to detect ransomware activity can improve prevention, detection, and incident response. Examples include:
- Anti-ransomware endpoint protection
- Anomaly detection solutions
- Deception technology to bait attackers
- Next-generation antivirus with machine learning
- Ransomware detection on network traffic
- Solutions to isolate encrypted files
- Ransomware containment and rollback tools
Combining multiple ransomware-focused security tools provides overlapping protection.
What are the best ways to recover from a ransomware attack?
If ransomware evades prevention, these steps can help limit damage and restore operations:
- Isolate infected systems immediately to prevent spread
- Determine the ransomware strain if possible
- Check backup integrity to ensure recovery options
- Assess damage and impacted systems/data
- Contact incident response firms and/or law enforcement
- Secure clean systems and change all passwords
- Negotiate with threat actors if feasible
- Restore from offline, segmented backups if available
- Remediate any vulnerabilities that were exploited
- Convene team to review and improve defenses
Having an incident response plan and backups provides the best chance of restoring critical systems without paying ransoms. Be careful not to inadvertently restore malware from contaminated backups.
Should ransom be paid to threat actors?
Paying ransom demands is controversial:
- Paying does incentivize more attacks and fuels criminal enterprises
- However, in certain cases it may be the only viable way to resume operations quickly if backups are unavailable
- Governments often recommend not paying, but some businesses make the difficult decision to pay
- If paying, try negotiating the ransom down and use anonymity measures like cryptocurrency tumblers
- Payment does not guarantee restored access or prevent stolen data leaks
- Consult legal counsel and weigh options carefully before deciding on payment
There are merits on both sides of paying ransoms. The decision can hinge on how critical uptime is and the confidence in restoration options.
Is it possible to decrypt files without paying ransom?
Restoring access to ransomware-encrypted files without the decryption key is very difficult, but there are some options:
- Utilize backups or file versions to restore previous unaffected copies
- Leverage tools that can recover some damaged file types
- Find a security flaw in the ransomware variant, though uncommon
- Hope threat actors release a universal decryption key, which some have done
- Obtain the key through law enforcement operations, a rare outcome
If the strain is known, search for available decryption tools from security firms. Otherwise, rely on clean backups and prepare to rebuild systems manually. Paying remains the simplest way to decrypt, though guarantees nothing.
What cyber insurance policies may help?
Cyber insurance can provide resources and financial mitigation after a ransomware event:
- Incident response costs – Forensics, notifications, credit monitoring, public relations
- Business interruption – Reimburses for income loss during downtime
- Extortion payments – Some policies may cover ransom payments
- Civil lawsuits – Provides liability coverage from lawsuits by victims
- Cyber threats – Access to resources and expert guidance
Align policy limits with potential business impact. Read policies closely, as insurers may not cover losses from infrastructure failures or data leaks following an attack.
What law enforcement options exist for ransomware response?
Law enforcement has some tools to support ransomware response:
- Victim notification resources from the FBI, Secret Service, and CISA
- Threat intelligence sharing through public-private partnerships
- Dark web monitoring for stolen data from victims
- Tracking ransom payments via cryptocurrency analysis
- International law enforcement collaboration on takedowns
- Cybercrime task force operations seizing infrastructure
However, law enforcement action against threat actors is still fairly limited. Government agencies largely play a supporting role, while victims’ capabilities dictate recovery success.
How can organizations prepare for ransomware resiliency?
Building ransomware resilience involves planning, resources, and testing:
- Document detailed response plan with roles and procedures
- Train staff and conduct ransomware simulations
- Maintain duplicate backups offline and immutable
- Segment networks to limit lateral movement
- Establish emergency communications procedures
- Stage Bitcoin/Monero if payment demanded
- Onboard restoration vendors for priority support
- Evaluate insurance policies annually
Isolating critical data, securing backups, and preparing staff enables organizations to manage ransomware events more smoothly. Conducting “tabletop exercises” builds muscle memory.
Ransomware remains a serious threat, but a combination of prevention, detection, response, and resilience best practices can help reduce risk. Utilizing multiple layered security tools, restricting access, training employees, and maintaining recent offline backups provide protection. Staying vigilant of new ransomware trends and innovating defenses prevents complacency. Lastly, having skilled resources, plans, and insurance in place enables organizations to navigate crises without complete disruption. Ransomware may be inevitable, but its impacts can be limited with robust cybersecurity and resilience.