There’s no end to ransomware in sight. It’s a simple enough attack — install malware, encrypt data/system, and ask for the ransom — so why aren’t we stopping ransomware? Security vendors are keenly aware of the issue, as well as the attack vectors and methods, but can’t seem to stay a step ahead, causing ransomware to grow from $1 billion in damages in 2016 to an estimated $5 billion in 2017, according to Cybersecurity Ventures. There are two basic reasons ransomware continues to be a “success” for cyber criminals.
Just when we think we’re getting on top of the ransomware problem, our adversaries alter their tactics or produce new techniques to replicate and cause damage and misery. We’ve recently seen ransomware like WannaCry take advantage of unpatched vulnerabilities in the Windows SMB service to propagate around networks, especially those that had SMB open to the internet — A clever technique borrowed from mid-to-late 90s Windows worm malware like Sasser. We’ve also seen malware writers develop new techniques for installing malicious code onto computers via Microsoft Office. While the threat posed by malicious macros in Office documents has existed for a number of years, we’re now seeing the use of a Microsoft protocol called Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) to run malicious code. Unlike macro-based attacks, the DDE attack doesn’t give the user a pop-up, prompt or warning, so exploitation is far more effective and successful.
The technological advances made by malware authors are significant, but their soft skills, like social engineering, also keep on getting better. Improved writing, more realistic email presentation, and even solid social engineering tactics are all cause for the increase in their success.
And if you’re good at what you do, make it a service and profit on those that have a similar interest, but lack your skills. Thus, “crime-as-a-service” and “malware-as-a-service” now exist, further perpetuating the ransomware problem. The availability and ease of use of these platforms, means anyone can turn to cybercrime and ransomware with little or no coding or malware experience. These platforms and networks are run by organized cybercrime gangs, for vast profits, so we won’t see them going away any time soon.
Reason 2: We’re causing our own problems
Of course, there’s still one large problem many of us have not dealt with yet, and that’s the weaknesses we ourselves cause that become the entry way for the cybercriminals. WannaCry was so successful because it leveraged an unpatched windows vulnerability. NotPetya did the same. So, what are the weaknesses?
- A lack of patching – We continue to shoot ourselves in the foot here, because we don’t have solid protection and prevention routines that include the patching of operating systems and applications — especially those leveraged by ransomware authors to gain access.
- Not enough (reliable) backups – A lack of validated backups — the primary ransomware recovery tool — can leave us out in the cold and unproductive. It’s a simple equation: if you have backups, you choose recovery over ransom.
- User awareness – Users simply don’t understand the threat, the impact, or the cost of a ransomware infection. But, nor should they really — they have a job to do in accounting or sales, not IT security. Even so, putting in solid phishing training and testing can make a material difference.
- A lack of least privilege – The more access a user has, the greater scope of infection the ransomware can have. With 71% of end users say they have access to company data they should not be able to see, IT has some serious work to do to ensure privileges are locked down.
- No layered defense – A single security solution, such as an antivirus, can only do so much to protect the organization. You need solutions like IPS, an email gateway, endpoint protection, and more all working on concert to give ransomware as little a chance of succeeding as possible.
Doing something about the ransomware problem
What should you do to stop ransomware being so successful? Hide? Run away? Unplug the internet? Probably none of those ideas are likely to solve this problem, although out of sight and all that. I mentioned briefly above, the idea of many thin layers of defense, and while ‘defense in depth’ might seem a little old school and became extinct when we lost control of the network perimeter, there are some ideas we can borrow:
- Defense in depth – Make sure you have a solid, proactive security stance in place, including: patching, least privilege, user training, etc.
- Protect the endpoint – Desktop and endpoint protection solutions can offer some degree of protection, however, keep in mind that malware can adapt itself to these solutions and circumvent them.
- Plan for the worst – Ransomware seems to find a way and you need to make sure you can recover when it does. Backups, off-site backups and backups on different media types are essential. Make sure you test their recovery too, as you don’t want to be finding out how to restore a backup in anger. They say you train hard to fight easy. Never has that been more true for IT contingency planning.
Get these three things right, and you’ll be a lot closer to stopping the rain of ransomware from ruining your day, night or weekend.
 Ponemon, Corporate Data: A Protected Asset or a Ticking Time Bomb? (2014)
Helpful ransomware prevention resources:
- Identify and protect yourself against ransomware
- Try our Ransomware Prevention Kit
- Read Beat ransomware. 3 Ultimate strategies white paper
- Watch 3 Ultimate Strategies for Ransomware Prevention webinar