What Is Ransomware and How to Prevent It?
The Internet provides numerous business possibilities. However, more and more businesses are getting to know its darker side. Comparitech statistics show that 153 million new malware threats emerged over the last year. Cybercriminals are continuously developing sophisticated hacking methods capable of breaching advanced cybersecurity protocols.
Ransomware is a specific, particularly damaging cybercrime practice. Moreover, since 2019 ransomware incidents have grown by 3000%. Known for ruthlessness, ransomware gangs often target healthcare and governmental institutions, private businesses, and casual Internet users.
It’s very hard to recover from a successful ransomware attack. However, careful preparation can mitigate possible damages. This article presents the ransomware phenomenon and provides steps to prevent it.
What Is Ransomware?
The first ransomware incident dates back to 1989. The malware was created by an evolutionary biologist named Joseph Popp, who argued that ransom money was supposed to be used for AIDS research. Later he was found mentally unfit to stand trial. One way or another, he introduced cryptography for malicious purposes. The malware was spread via floppy disks. Once inserted into the device, it modified the computer startup process. After 90 boots, it encrypted the names of all files on the C: drive and displayed a ransom note.
The general ransomware principle remains the same. Malicious software attempts to gain unauthorized access to a computer network. Once there, it spreads encrypting user files and denies any operations with them. Malware then presents a ransom note with payment demands. Frequently, demands are made in cryptocurrency to avoid possible identification.
The rise of cryptocurrency accelerated ransomware evolution. Because the end goal is to receive the ransom without getting caught, cryptocurrency proved to be the perfect payment method. Moreover, advanced cryptography improved ransomware attacks. Sophisticated encryption algorithms are nearly impossible to break, leaving few alternative action possibilities.
Currently, ransomware is a very lucrative cybercrime method. What’s more, it has become a semi-legitimate business. Some malware developers provide Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS). Third parties can order their services and get a professional ransomware toolkit. In other words, people with no hacking knowledge can deploy ransomware attacks.
Worst Ransomware Attacks
It’s best to rely on tangible examples to understand the damaging scope of ransomware better. One of the worst incidents happened in 2017, called WannaCry ransomware. It infected over two hundred thousand devices in 150 countries, demanding $300-600 ransom in cryptocurrency.
This attack exploited vulnerabilities in Windows systems and spread in worm-like behavior. Worms are specific viruses that can multiply and spread through networks without human interaction. They excel at infecting as many devices as possible without human knowledge. Potential WannaCry damages range from hundreds of millions to four billion US dollars.
The most notable recent ransomware attack happened last year. On Friday, May 7th, 2021, Colonial Pipeline was forced to halt all operations. The oil giant is responsible for oil distribution via three 5,500 mile tubes and processes 3 million barrels of fuel daily between Texas and New York. Ransomware attacks wreaked chaos in the oil market, with many people going into panic-mode afraid of gas shortage. Ultimately, the company paid the $4.4 million ransom to restart its operations.
From an ethical perspective, the worst ransomware case happened in Ireland. On May 14th, 2021, Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) was hit by a ransomware attack. The attack began on March 16th via malicious email, which was opened on March 18th. Over two months, attackers gained more access to HSE networks, with HSE cybersecurity failing to respond to the threat. One of the issues was outdated cybersecurity systems. The impact was enormous. Routine checkups had to be canceled, and doctors lost access to patient diagnoses resulting in widespread panic. Ireland refused to pay the ransom and, by September, restored over 95% of affected servers.
Should You Pay the Ransom?
There is no simple answer regarding ransom payment. However, denying the payment for as long as possible is generally agreed upon. Firstly, remember that you’re dealing with criminals. There are no guarantees that they will restore access to the files even after paying the ransom. Moreover, by paying the ransom, you are funding their further operations. Cybercriminals are just as likely to ask for more money than release the files.
Second, 80% of ransomware targets that pay up suffer another ransomware attack. After all, hackers look for targets to give in to the pressure. If you do, they will mark you on the list as a possible lucrative target for upcoming operations. It’s best to start preparing for the next attack if you decide to fulfill their demands.
How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks?
Ransomware is extremely hard to mitigate once the infection has happened. Contemporary encryption algorithms are nearly impossible to break. Moreover, ransomware paralyzes the entire computer network leaving minimal technical options. At the same time, there are concrete and straightforward steps you can take to prevent it from happening.
- Keep your devices up to date. Regarding cybersecurity, system updates are of utmost importance. Software development companies regularly issue updates to fix known security issues. It’s best to update them ASAP. Hackers are well aware of when specific updates happen. Accordingly, they look for not updated systems that can still be exploited. For example, Microsoft fixed the security vulnerability two months prior to WannaCry spreading globally. However, many people failed to install the update leaving the doors open. Ireland HSE also failed to update cybersecurity systems, allowing the disaster to happen.
- Invest in education. It’s essential to understand how ransomware exploits human error. The virus has to infect the system before encrypting the files. Often cybercriminals deploy Phishing attacks for initial infection. It’s reported that in 2021, 83% of organizations experienced Phishing attacks. Hackers craft personalized emails with malicious attachments. For example, employees could receive an invitation to a business event with a schedule in a PDF file. Unaware employees downloading the file activate the malware allowing it to spread to other computers. Educating your staff in identifying Phishing emails will significantly decrease infection chances. Simultaneously, ransomware can spread via insecure websites or SQL injections. It might be necessary to subscribe to web development or data science courses that would supply relevant employees with crucial cybersecurity knowledge.
- Secure online communication. Hackers often require extensive system knowledge before attacking it. They might spy on employees’ online activities and intercept their chats. Moreover, due to WFH policies, many people share sensitive business data over insecure home networks. It’s highly recommended that anyone dealing with confidential business information uses end-to-end encryption services. Additional encryption will ensure online privacy. Keep in mind cybercriminals often look for the easiest target. If they notice your employees use additional cybersecurity software, they will look elsewhere.
- Do regular backups. Backing up your data is essential to mitigate ransomware damages. Even if your system is affected by ransomware, you can restore an unencrypted backup and continue operations. Use the following 3-2-1 rule. Have three separate data copies on two different storages with one copy offline. Do not make the common mistake of backing up data on the same storage or server. Ransomware will encrypt the whole storage, including the backup data. Remember, it’s essential to keep one storage offline. Because malware rapidly spreads over computer networks, offline mode will protect backup data from intrusion.
- Segment corporate network. Divide your network into smaller segments. Because ransomware attempts to spread over the entire network, it’s essential to prevent that from happening. Each individual network segment should have individual security protocols, user permissions, and a firewall. It will halt malware from spreading uncontrollably. Furthermore, you can isolate malware in infected segments and disconnect them from the rest. It will significantly increase the chances of continuing business operations while the cybersecurity experts deal with the malware.
- Endpoint security. Securing all business devices will prevent most infection attempts. Nowadays, employees use numerous devices for work operations: smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc. It provides more attack trajectories. It would be best if you use additional software to secure each device, such as:
- Data encryption;
- Web browser security extensions;
- Real-time security notifications;
- Data loss prevention;
- Mobile device security.
There are hundreds of different cybersecurity software that provide these benefits. VPNs, password managers, and secure Cloud services are just a few. Make sure to research particular software online to pick the ones you need the most.
7. Systematic security testing. Cybersecurity is never finished. It’s a common mistake to think you can do cybersecurity in one big order. In reality, you need to update cybersecurity protocols regularly. Hackers are coming up with new hacking methods regularly, and you need to be prepared. Make sure your security testing involves three critical aspects:
- Establish new security rules;
- Inspect new system vulnerabilities;
- Reevaluate existing cybersecurity practices.
Regarding ransomware, you might want to emulate a ransomware attack. Remember, most of your devices will be inoperable when the attack happens. It would be best if you had a clear and concise action plan. Prepare offline contact communication channels for crucial departments. Simultaneously, have instructions for PR communication and cooperation with the law.
These steps will protect most businesses against the most common ransomware hits. Hackers frequently look for the easiest targets, and a standard efficient firewall will repel them. Moreover, your employees will be more mindful of other cyber threats if you include them in an informative cybersecurity course. The saying better safe than sorry applies perfectly to ransomware.