Ransomware is a type of malicious software that utilizes encryption to take control of a user’s or organization’s crucial data and demand a ransom — typically in the form of Bitcoin or other digital currency. It has the potential to quickly exploit networks, databases, and servers without any restriction, rendering entire organizations helpless. In some cases, attackers may steal data before encrypting it and threaten to release this information unless the ransom is paid publicly.
What started as a marginal business a few years ago is now a thriving criminal enterprise. According to a study by Statista, over 236 million ransomware attacks occurred globally in the first half of 2022, with 623 million cases registered in 2021. These attacks resulted in steep recovery costs of $1.85 million on average per attack.
How Does Ransomware Work?
Ransomware attacks can vary in complexity and sophistication depending on who created them, their type of encryption, and the delivery method.
Who creates ransomware?
No single entity or group exclusively creates ransomware, as anyone — including individuals or organized cybercriminal groups — can create and distribute this malicious software. However, some well-known organized criminal groups are on the radar of law enforcement agencies.
Ransomware encryption techniques
Sophisticated attackers now use a range of sophisticated techniques as reported in The Red Report Top 10 MITRE ATT&CK Techniques by Picus Labs. One of the most prevalent techniques is known as T1486 Data Encrypted for Impact.
The T1486 Data Encrypted for Impact technique utilizes advanced encryption methods to make breaking it practically impossible. Threat actors use this method to encrypt data on target systems and prevent access to the system and network resources.
The encryption applies symmetric and asymmetric algorithms to secure data. Symmetric algorithms use the same key for encryption and decryption, while asymmetric algorithms use two keys — a public key used for encryption and a private key used for decryption.
Typically, an attacker will generate a random symmetric key and encrypt their victim’s data with it. Then, they will use an asymmetric algorithm to encrypt this key, producing an encrypted version of the original plaintext file.
The attacker then demands payment from the victim in exchange for a decryption key or program that can be used to decrypt the ciphertext files. If payment isn’t made within a certain timeframe, then the attacker may threaten to delete or otherwise render the encrypted files inaccessible forever.
Ransomware Delivery Methods
Attackers can use several different methods to deliver ransomware to victims. These include the following.
One of the most common ransomware attack methods is phishing, in which attackers send fraudulent emails disguised as legitimate messages from reputable organizations like banks, tech companies, government institutions, and even law enforcement officers. These emails typically include malicious attachments or hyperlinks that redirect victims to a website where they are infected with ransomware.
Exploit kits are automated tools used to scan for and exploit vulnerabilities in target systems. Once a vulnerability has been identified, the ransomware payload is downloaded and executed on the victim’s machine.
Malvertising is another common method of delivering ransomware, which refers to using online advertisements to spread malicious software. Attackers will typically create malicious websites or ads that redirect victims to sites where they can be infected with ransomware.
One of the most dangerous methods of ransomware delivery is through drive-by downloads, which occur when a user unknowingly visits a compromised website, and the ransomware is automatically downloaded and executed on their machine. This technique can also be used to target users through malvertising and phishing campaigns.
Also see: Steps to Building a Zero Trust Network
Why Are Ransomware Attacks Increasing?
Ransomware attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated due to the widespread availability of powerful computing resources. As such, many attackers have begun using algorithms designed with superior security features, making it nearly impossible for anyone other than the attacker to decrypt their victims’ files without access to their private keys.
It is also a lucrative project for attackers. One successful attack can score them millions of dollars in ransom payments. Payment of ransoms has been made easier and carries less risk for criminals due to the rise and availability of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which facilitate payments between attackers and victims without revealing personal information.
Ransomware as a service (RaaS)
RaaS is another factor contributing to the increase in ransomware attacks. This business model allows threat actors with little or no technical expertise to start their own ransomware campaigns by paying a subscription fee for a ransomware toolkit from someone else. The availability of ransomware-as-a-service platforms dramatically reduces the barriers to entry for attackers and makes it easier for them to launch successful attacks. Many more come and go, and law enforcement is perennially at a disadvantage.
Ransomware Defense and Mitigation Strategies
Fortunately, there are some strategies you can implement to help protect your business from ransomware and other cyber threats.
Back up your data
One of the best ways to protect yourself against ransomware is to ensure all of your important data is backed up. This means that if you become a victim of ransomware, you will still have access to backups of your files and won’t have to pay the ransom to get them back.
Secure your backups
It’s not enough just to back up your data; you also need to make sure those backups are secure. If a hacker gains access to them, they will be able to encrypt them and hold them for ransom, so make sure you take steps to secure any backups you make.
Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication whenever possible, as this will make it much harder for anyone to gain unauthorized access.
Use ransomware security software
Ransomware security software can help detect suspicious activity on your network and alert you when something out of the ordinary is happening. Keep these programs up-to-date as new threats emerge, so they can detect any new types of malware before they cause damage.
Visit safe websites
You should also ensure everyone in the office knows how important it is to visit only safe websites while using company devices or networks. This means avoiding sites with questionable content or those known for hosting malicious software such as viruses or ransomware.
Only use secure networks
Always use a secure network connection like a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting remotely.
Implement a security awareness program to keep track of the latest threats
Core point: subscribing to updates about the latest ransomware threats can help keep you informed about any potential vulnerabilities in your systems, so you can take steps accordingly.
Additionally, implementing a security awareness program within your organization helps educate employees about best practices when working online.
Also see: Best IoT Platforms for Device Management