So-called ransomware attacks are on the rise, namely because targeted businesses are increasingly willing to negotiate with - and even pay - their extortionists.
Ransomware has been getting a lot of media attention of late. On April 1, security firm Trend Micro reported that since the beginning of the year, numerous variants of crypto-ransomware have been discovered in the wild, striking consumers and businesses throughout the world.
Criminals rarely hold up their end of the bargain, so negotiating with anyone who is demanding a ransom is just a bad idea.
Just weeks earlier, security firms FireEye and Bitdefender issued warnings about new ransomware trends that were making these attacks more difficult to thwart and detect (see Ransomware Attacks' New Focus: Businesses).
Now experts are calling attention to one of the reasons why ransomware attacks are becoming more common - because organizations say they'd rather not deal with the fallout that trails a breach or cyber-attack that goes public. Instead of getting law enforcement involved, they'd rather try their hands at making deals with their attackers first.
But paying ransom is short-sighted and is never a good idea. Why? Because cybercriminals rarely keep their end of the bargain. Organizations that negotiate with hackers often end up with lost data after paying a hefty ransom.
Lance James, who heads up cyber-intelligence at consultancy Deloitte & Touche, says most businesses that pay ransoms never have their data restored or their encrypted files decrypted.
During his presentation at Information Security Media Group's Fraud Summit in Atlanta, James discussed ransomware cases he has investigated. He noted that in most of those cases, businesses paid the ransom and then the attackers disappeared, never fulfilling their end of the negotiating bargain.
Of course, organizations should prepare for these types of attacks by taking steps now to ensure they have data and drive backups, and that they have strong multifactor authentication requirements for access to servers, in the event an employee's credentials are hijacked during one of these attacks.
But businesses also need to spend more time educating their staff about how ransomware attacks work, why these attacks are waged, and why reporting these attacks to law enforcement, rather than trying to handle them internally, is so critical.
The Attack Strategy
Ransomware attacks are waged in two parts. First, a PC or mobile device is infected with malware that locks the corporate user out or encrypts files so that the user can longer access them. Then a ransom is demanded through an automated message that appears on the device's screen. The user is told he or she has a limited amount of time to pay the ransom before the device will be wiped clean or the files will be erased.
The tools for these attacks are easy to buy and technical support for waging the attacks is inexpensive.
Law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have advised consumers and businesses to immediately report ransomware schemes when they occur.
But security researchers say that, despite of those warnings, many businesses are opting to either pay the ransom or are engaging in direct negotiations with their attackers instead of getting the authorities involved.
Willingness to Negotiate
A new study from cyber-intelligence firm ThreatTrack Security finds that 40 percent of security professionals believe their organizations have been targeted by a ransomware attack. Of those that believe they've been targeted, 55 percent say that when under attack, they are willing to negotiate a ransom in exchange for the release of corporate data or files.
ThreatTrack's research also finds that one in three security pros would recommend to upper management that their companies negotiate a ransom to see if they could avoid public disclosure of a breach involving stolen data or files that have been encrypted as part of the attack.
In fact, 66 percent of those surveyed by ThreatTrack say they fear negative reactions from customers and/or employees whose data was compromised in a breach if those customers or employees were to learn that their organizations chose not to negotiate with cybercriminals for the return of data.
ThreatTrack's survey includes responses from 250 U.S. security professionals at companies with 500 to 2,500 employees.
Beware of a Quick Fix
When it comes to ransomware attacks waged against corporations, many victimized organizations see paying the criminals what they want as the easiest way to make the problem go away.
But criminals rarely hold up their end of the bargain, so negotiating with anyone who is demanding a ransom is just a bad idea.
Obviously, more education, from the CEO down to the employee, is needed. But we also need a shift in the corporate culture, with an emphasis on looking beyond a "quick fix" for avoiding breach publicity.
Information sharing with peers can play a critical role as well. The more we talk about these attacks and share the techniques used, the more we can learn about how to defend our networks and shield our employees from falling victim to the phishing schemes that are often used to infect systems in the first place.
Security vendors need to step up their efforts here, too. Rather than just supplying intrusion detection, they also need to provide some good-old-fashioned education.