What is the incident handling procedure for ransomware?

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts files on a device or network, preventing users from accessing them. Attackers demand ransom payment in cryptocurrency to provide the decryption key and restore access. Ransomware has surged in recent years, with attacks targeting businesses, hospitals, schools and government agencies. Major ransomware strains include Ryuk, Conti, REvil and DarkSide.

Ransomware is typically delivered through phishing emails containing malicious links or attachments. Once executed, it encrypts files and displays a ransom demand. Payment is no guarantee files can be recovered. Ransomware can have catastrophic impacts, as organizations can permanantly lose access to critical data. Quick action is required to contain and remediate attacks.

Why is incident handling important for ransomware?

Effective incident handling is crucial for dealing with ransomware attacks. Key reasons proper incident handling is vital include:

– Minimizing damage and restoring operations – Quickly containing the attack surface can limit damage and allow some business operations to continue. The faster systems can be restored, the lower the overall impact.

– Preventing data loss – If executed before encryption is complete, shutting down systems can prevent further data loss. Efforts to recover encrypted files also depend on prompt action.

– Complying with laws and regulations – Regulations often mandate breach notification within 72 hours. Proper handling is required to assess scope.

– Reducing costs – The costs from ransomware scale rapidly over time. Lost revenue, recovery efforts, reputational harm and fines can multiply if the incident handling process is delayed.

– Improving recovery – Structured incident handling makes eradication and recovery smoother. The evidence gathered enables implementing technology improvements to enhance resilience.

– Lowering risk – Containing the attack vector reduces chances of follow-on compromises. Quick action also makes future attacks less likely to succeed.

Overall, disciplined incident handling prevents a ransomware situation from spiraling out of control. It is essential for limiting damages and restoring normal operations as soon as possible.

What are the main steps in the ransomware incident handling process?

Most experts recommend a structured 6-step approach for handling ransomware incidents:

Step 1) Detection and initial response – The first signs of ransomware may include unusual system activity, encrypted files, ransom notes on screens, or loss of access to files or systems. Security teams should quickly investigate potential infections and determine scope.

Step 2) Containment – Limit the attack’s spread by isolating compromised systems and shutting down access to network shares, remote access and other lateral movement paths. Work to prevent encryption of additional files.

Step 3) Eradication – Remove the ransomware from infected systems to stop the malicious activity. Retain forensic evidence such as infected files, ransom notes and system logs.

Step 4) Recovery – Restore encrypted files from clean backups if available. Rebuild systems from scratch if backups are incomplete or corrupted. Replace compromised credentials and passwords.

Step 5) Lessons learned – Root cause analysis provides insights into how the attack occurred and vulnerabilities. Identify and implement improvements to people, processes and technology.

Step 6) Return to normal operations – Confirm remediations, restore business systems, notify parties affected by the incident and validate enhanced defenses against future attacks.

Executing these steps systematically is key to effectively managing and recovering from ransomware. Response checklists help ensure critical actions are completed. We next examine each phase in more detail.

Step 1: Detection and Initial Response

Detecting a ransomware attack quickly and responding fast during initial stages can significantly reduce damages. Key actions in this phase include:

– Monitoring security tools and investigating alerts – SIEM, EDR, firewall and email security solutions may detect ransomware delivery or execution. Validate alerts urgently.

– Checking for signs of encryption activity – Unusually high CPU usage and large numbers of file changes can indicate encryption occurring.

– Testing access to files and applications – spot check critical folders and systems to check if access has been lost. This helps confirm malicious activity.

– Identifying the variant – Corporate AV tools may identify the ransomware strain based on signatures or behavior. This provides attack information.

– Executing an emergency response plan – Established incident response plans expedite expert teams working to contain the breach.

– Escalating to senior management – Brief leadership and activate decision-making governance for incident response based on corporate policies.

– Isolating compromised systems – Take infected systems offline to prevent lateral movement as soon as ransomware is confirmed.

– Communication to internal teams – Keep IT, security and affected departments updated as information is uncovered during the investigation.

Detecting and reacting quickly to initial ransomware indicators can dramatically curb its business impact. But the incident must be handled methodically through later phases to eliminate the adversary’s presence.

Step 2: Containing the Attack

The containment phase focuses on limiting the ransomware’s spread across systems and networks by severing its ability to move laterally. Key aspects include:

– Disconnecting infected systems from the network – Prevent communication to vulnerable systems which have not yet been compromised.

– Suspending domain and remote access – Block RDP connections and disable VPN services to stop malware propagation.

– Securing network perimeter – Close ports, disable services and strengthen firewall rules to prevent outbound command and control activity.

– Isolating or powering down unimpacted systems – Segment systems which have not been accessed by the ransomware to keep them clean.

– Preventing backup deletion – If the ransomware seeks to destroy backups, isolate backup systems and restrict administrators from tampering with them.

– Enforcing heightened security controls – Require use of privileged access management tools for administrative access during containment. Limit users to only critical systems.

– Developing workarounds for business-critical processes – For essential functions impacted by infected systems, implement alternate processes which avoid compromised infrastructure.

– Monitoring for return of ransomware – Adversaries may attempt to re-compromise contained systems. Watch for reinfection and strengthen controls if reoccurences are detected.

By severing the ransomware’s capability to expand infection, organizations prevent exponentially worse outcomes. However, elimination of the malware is still required.

Step 3: Eradicating the Ransomware

Threat eradication activities focus on completely removing the ransomware from the environment to terminate the attack. Actions consist of:

– Identifying and isolating all compromised accounts – Scan systems to detect compromised user accounts, service accounts and system processes leveraged to propagate the ransomware. Disable identified accounts.

– Wiping infected systems – For severely compromised systems with many encrypted files, rebuilding from scratch may be required. Retain drive images for forensic analysis.

– Removing ransomware files and artifacts – Use AV scans to locate and quarantine remaining components of the ransomware. Delete ransom notes and other attack artifacts.

– Resetting account credentials – Require password resets for all administrative and user accounts potentially compromised by the attack.

– Revoking application keys and credentials – Rotate credentials and API tokens for any applications accessed using compromised identities.

– Updating perimeter controls – Strengthen AV, firewall and filtering tools to prevent reinfection from similar ransomware strains.

– Conducting forensics – Investigate encrypted files, file change logs and system artifacts to reconstruct details of the attack for lessons learned.

– Searching for backdoors – Inspect systems for unauthorized remote access tools that may have been added during the compromise.

The goal is to eliminate any means for the ransomware to persist or reconnect. This reduces the chances of follow-on attacks and helps restore a hardened security posture.

Step 4: Recovering Systems and Data

Restoring encrypted files and rebuilding systems compromised by ransomware is critical for resuming operations. Recovery efforts include:

– Restoring data from clean backups – Leverage offline, immutable backups validated as free of malware to recover encrypted files. Prioritize critical systems first.

– Using decryption tools if available – For some ransomware strains, public decryption tools exist when keys are leaked. Private firms may also offer decryption capabilities.

– Re-imaging compromised systems – For systems without backups or where files remain encrypted, rebuild from trusted OS images and reconfigure based on change management records.

– Resetting system credentials and controls – Issue new system usernames, passwords, application keys and WiFi passcodes. Reapply patched configurations.

– Conducting test restores – Confirm restored systems and data are properly configured and functioning as expected before reconnecting to the network.

– Retiring compromised systems – Hardware known to be infected may need to be removed rather than restored to avoid reinfection.

– Validating backups – Assess remaining backups to ensure they have integrity and are free of malware before relying upon them further.

The availability of reliable backups is key for successfully restoring affected systems. They facilitate quicker and less costly recovery efforts.

Step 5: Learning from the Incident

Steps should be taken during and after recovery to learn from the ransomware incident and enhance defenses:

– Document the infection’s timeline – Catalogue the sequence of events and tactics used during the compromise for review.

– Identify the attack’s initial vector – Pinpoint the source of compromise such as a phishing email, third party access or unpatched system.

– Conduct a gap assessment – Analyze performance relative to NIST, ISO and other frameworks to identify security capability improvements in areas like detection, response and recovery.

– Build threat intelligence – Research the ransomware strain’s TTPs, who is behind it and how it has evolved over time.

– Participate in information sharing – Engage with industry ISACs and trusted peers to learn from others’ experiences with the ransomware variant.

– Implement technology upgrades – Increase visibility, segmentation, monitoring and artificial intelligence to enhance preventative controls and speed detection.

– Establish reporting metrics – Define KPIs to measure readiness, exercise performance and improvements driven by lessons learned.

– Improve response processes – Update incident response playbooks and run tabletop exercises to validate enhancements developed based on the event’s findings.

– Provide updated staff training – Refresh staff knowledge on latest ransomware tactics, critical controls and proper reporting procedures.

– Brief organizational leaders – Present conclusions to executives, boards and business owners to inform strategic decisions on security investments and tolerance for residual risk.

Capturing lessons learned is imperative for strengthening defenses and identifying root causes requiring long term corrective action after a ransomware breach.

Step 6: Returning to Normal Operations

Once eradication and recovery activities wind down, focus shifts to normalizing business:

– Monitoring for anomalies – Continue heightened monitoring to check for abnormalities that could indicate ransomware remnants or a new attack.

– Ongoing system validation – Prioritize testing and monitoring of restored systems to confirm stability and performance.

– Third party notification – If data of partners or customers was potentially impacted, conduct appropriate notifications as required by contracts and regulations.

– Internal stakeholder updates – Keep executives, managers and end users apprised of progress restoring services. Provide forward-looking guidance on enhancements underway.

– Insurance coordination – If claiming losses under cyber insurance, coordinate with carriers to provide forensic evidence, estimates and documentation of recovery costs.

– Supplier/vendor outreach – If third parties were impacted by the incident, discuss risk mitigations and additional safeguards to prevent reinfection via the supply chain.

– Media response – For highly public attacks, prepare executives for media inquiries and shape messaging around performance and accountability.

– External audits – Formal third party assessments can validate remediation efforts and identify any remaining gaps needing to be addressed.

– Closing the event – Gain team consensus on successful containment, conduct a final leadership briefing, and formally declare resolution of the incident.

Staying vigilant against potential ransomware re-emergence while communicating progress helps re-establish confidence in restored business operations.

How can organizations prepare in advance for ransomware events?

While the steps above address responding once an attack occurs, organizations can take the following measures in advance to enhance ransomware resilience:

– Establish an incident response plan – Document response procedures, roles and contacts to enable smooth execution when faced with real compromise.

– Secure backups – Maintain segmented, immutable backups offline to ensure access to encrypted data for recovery.

– Harden IT environments – Close vulnerabilities, monitor credential usage, filter web traffic and isolate systems. Update end of life systems.

– Train staff on threats – Build security awareness of latest phishing tactics, social engineering schemes, and signs of compromise like unexpected file encryption.

– Classify and protect sensitive data – Reduce risk of data exposure by categorizing its sensitivity and implementing rights management controls on confidential information. Restrict access.

– Test defenses through red teaming – Use mock ransomware attacks against the live environment to evaluate risk exposure and response capabilities.

– Maintain vendor management – Require vendors implement adequate controls based on contractual obligations and risk assessment.

– Purchase insurance protection – Ensure adequate cyber insurance coverage for business interruption, data recovery, replacement equipment, legal costs and extortion payments if warranted.

– Build cyber threat intelligence – Proactively monitor dark web sites, hacker forums and malware feeds to learn about threats targeting your industry.

– Develop public relations strategy – Plan communications to manage press coverage, inform customers, and demonstrate effective response.

Solid preparation empowers teams to respond swiftly when facing real-world ransomware events. Proper planning can mean the difference between smooth recovery and costly business disruption.


Ransomware represents a serious threat for organizations across all industries. Attackers are continuously evolving techniques for compromising systems, exfiltrating data and disrupting operations. To manage this risk, businesses must maintain vigilant preparation coupled with plans to respond decisively when incidents occur.

Documented procedures for detecting infections quickly, containing spread, eliminating malware presence, restoring operations systematically and learning for the future can help organizations minimize disruption and recover more smoothly. But ransomware prevention remains imperative through security posture hardening, staff training, data protection, cyber resilience planning and testing – reducing the likelihood of attacks gaining an initial foothold.

By taking a lifecycle approach which spans robust readiness, rapid coordinated response and continuous improvement, organizations can manage ransomware risk and maintain the continuity critical for their mission.