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Ransomware: An update on the nature of the threat

The technology of ransomware has evolved in sophistication and the business models of the criminal groups behind it have as well. The result: The threat from ransomware has reached pandemic proportions.

This post provides an executive level overview of the nature of this threat. This post is part of the OODA Cybersecurity Sensemaking series and is designed to be read as an introduction to our accompanying post on how to mitigate the threat of ransomware to your organization.

Background on the Threat

Here are some of the indicators of the prevalence and impact of ransomware:

  • In 2020 over 2400 US based organizations, including governments, hospitals, schools and businesses were victims. This trend continues in 2021. The most famous, to date, is the attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which made global news and underscored the real world impacts that ransomware can have.
  • Victims have been forced to pay millions. The estimated amount victims paid in ransom in 2020 is $350 million USD.  This will probably reach $500 million in 2021. The biggest to date is the March 2021 CNA insurance ($40M). The average payment by an organization is $312,500. 
  • The average downtime due to ransomware attacks is 21 days. The average time it takes a business to fully recover from an attack is 287 days.
  • An important trend to recognize is the use of double-extortion (stealing data and demanding a second payment or else will release it). At the start of 2020 only one major ransomware group exfiltrated data for a second extortion. By the end of 2020, 17 other groups adopted that method.

Who is doing this?

While it is possible for an individual to orchestrate an attack, this is rare. Today there are three basic kinds of attackers:

  • Nations: Russia and DPRK have been noted using government resources to create ransomware campaigns. China has the capability and has used malware and Trojan horses to extract data, and many researchers have noted ransomware attacks coming from China that have the sophistication of a nation state, but these could actually be from sophisticated non-state actors with behavior condoned by the state. 
  • Criminal Organizations: Many criminal groups have the capability to orchestrate campaigns that target an organization, get access, plant tools, spread ransomware, control it, and then request payment. Most of these operate with protection of nations like Russia so they are hard to reach by law enforcement.
  • Criminal Ecosystems: This is a collective of multiple actors and organizations using modern business models to interact for their mutual self benefit. Individuals and small groups specialize and do business with each other. This is currently the most productive, capable and agile threat actor today.

How the Criminal Ecosystem Attacks:

The agility of the criminal ecosystem has resulted in several new business models, including one called ransomware as a service. This model leverages a wide range of specialties, including technical developers, marketers, financial experts and criminals skilled at gaining first access to an enterprise. Experts at operations and orchestration are also used. After mission success, profits are split.

The Technologies of Ransomware

The technologies used in ransomware attack include the malicious code used to encrypt data as well as technologies for gaining access to infrastructure and controlling the malware remotely.

  • The malicious code itself consists of many strains. Ransomware names that have made the news over the last decade include Cryptolocker, WannaCry, Petya, NotPetya, Ryuk, and Darkside. There is a high degree of sharing between criminals involved in ransomware and it is common that new strains of ransomware are modifications of an existing strain.
  • The command and control infrastructure used by ransomware criminals is based on a foundation of the Internet itself, with added layers of encryption. The anonymity services of the TOR network are used to aid in obsfucation. Computer servers managed by adversaries are used to store and manage encrypted data and encryption keys. Cryptocurrencies are used to facilitate transfer of funds.

The Darkside Example

As an exemplar of how capable ransomware has become, here is how the Darkside malware works:

  • The malware is written to avoid detection using a variety of commonly used techniques, including encrypting its core code so it will not trigger detection during the various stages of its activity.
  • Initial access to a victim network can come via multiple paths, which may be a phishing attack, exploiting legitimate remote monitoring and management tools (like AnyDesk and TeamViewer), exploiting a trusted relationship, or logging in with valid accounts and credentials. In the example of Darkside, the business model is one where affiliates can use the Darkside code so really any group that can get access can use this malware.
  • Once access to a victim network is gained, the malware collects information about computers to learn about the environment. It then determines what files to encrypt, since it does not want to leave the computer unusable, it just wants to find data to hold for ransom.
  • The malware spreads in two general ways, it can be placed by criminals who have access to give it a strong foothold, and it can replicate itself using common enterprise network protocols.
  • The malware looks for any backups that are on the same computer and renders them unusable, then searches for backups and common backup programs that store data elsewhere on the network to attempt to encrypt or render them unusable.
  • When triggered, the Darkside code encrypts data it finds and also pulls data from the enterprise back to adversary servers. During later stages of the attack, the Darkside code harvest credentials stored in files, in memory and on domain controllers. The software will also use file shares to distribute attack tools and store file archives. The code will relax permissions on file shares for easier harvesting of data. Near the end of the attack the code deletes all backups it can find and a special file is left behind displaying information on what happened and how to pay.

Organizations Can Defend Against Ransomware

The next post in this series provides a guide to executives focused on how to mitigate the threat of ransomware. This guide was produced with inputs from four experienced practitioners (Junaid Islam, Bob Gourley, Matt Devost, Bob Flores) with decades of experience in thwarting dynamic cyber adversaries and in optimizing enterprise technology design for functionality and security.

 

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Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes OODALoop.com. Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency.