During the pandemic a parallel threat began permeating, driven partially by COVID itself. Ransomware attacks have increased exponentially over the last year and a half, impacting businesses of every size and profile. Yet, many companies believe it won’t happen to their business. For every Colonial Pipeline on the news there are thousands of small-to-medium enterprises impacted. Many of these go unreported.
Today, Executing ransomware requires very little technical aptitude. A would-be attacker only needs the capability to access the dark web, where one can buy stolen network access from any number of businesses and then license ransomware deployment capability from Ransomware-as-a-Service platforms. The attack surface of victims is also plentiful, as many companies set-up remote access to provide systems connectivity to remote workers without proper security controls.
As a ransomware negotiator, I have had the bittersweet job of being in the middle of these attacks. My team and I are brought in post-attack to help businesses assess the business impact and understand the adversary, so that the impacted business can decide whether to engage with the ransomware operator. Should the business decide to do so, myself and my team act as a liaison, assisting with the negotiation, compliance, and settlement. While we have worked with some of the largest, newsworthy companies, it is the small-to-medium enterprises that concern me the most, as those businesses’ ability to recover from the operational, public relations, and breach fines are minimal.
No matter the size of your organization, ransomware is a threat that should be taken seriously. For example, in 2019, nearly 56% of organizations across multiple industries reported a ransomware attack (CISO Magazine). The time and resources spent focused on prevention and response, will pay back dividends when the unfortunate event occurs.
We have taken inventory of how the threat actors gain access in each of our cases and unsurprisingly it can be distilled down to a short list of cyber hygiene items. Chief among them, are securing remote access and better password and corporate credential policy. The majority of successful attacks are reused corporate credentials and passwords found on the dark web, and used to login to the remote access systems. Simply shutting off or securing Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), Virtual Private Networking (VPN) devices, enforcing a strict password and credential policy, and enabling Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) wherever supported, will significantly reduce the risk of becoming a victim. Monitoring dark web activity for your business’ critical data and intellectual property is a good measure, too.
When an attack is successful it can be a very chaotic experience. Systems are down, staff cannot login, email is inaccessible. We have found that most companies, even those who have documented incident response plans, are not fully prepared for the impact of a ransomware event. While traditional incident response plays a role in a ransomware event, there are many attributes that are unique to this kind of attack. The operational disruption, loss of revenue due to downed systems, inability to invoice, pay employees, etc., creates an atmosphere of panic and haste.
First, do not attempt to repair, rename files or shut down systems, as this activity can often corrupt the encrypted files. Do not attempt to contact the threat actor directly. This should only be done when the business decision has been made to proceed with engagement and negotiation.
Use a professional negotiator. Traditional incident response should be enacted immediately to ensure the threat actors no longer have access to the network.
Having a documented process in advance of the attack will ease the navigation of the event. In addition to traditional incident response items, typically technical in nature, a ransomware response plan requires significant business process documentation. These would include a decision team, a team lead, financial stakeholders (who is going to approve the wire to the crypto broker?), technical leadership who can assess the impact and whether systems can be restored in a timely manner, legal counsel for breach notification, and so on.
Prevention, and preparation will go miles to mitigating and easing the impact of a ransomware attack. For reference, you can obtain our ransomware negotiation guide here https://www.groupsense.io/ransomware-negotiation-guide. For guidance on ransomware look at the CISA ransomware information site https://www.cisa.gov/stopransomware or talk to your external breach counsel.