Cyber Security Essentials

Where next for ransomware?

The scourge of ransomware continues with the high-profile Colonial Pipeline case back in May (we blogged about that here), now just another disturbing statistic in an onslaught that some have estimated to be up to 4,000 attacks a day.  Ransomware, of course, is not a new problem.  Past events include the famous WannaCry/NotPetya strains that affected the UK NHS and shipping conglomerate Maersk (amongst others) in early 2017 and the Travelex ransomware attack that affected travellers buying Forex in early 2020.

But 2021 so far does seem to be “the year of ransomware”. Colonial’s ransom of $4.4m (they did claw some back) has been accompanied in this year’s roll-call by insurance company CNA Financial who reportedly paid a $40m ransom, the Irish Healthcare system who despite being given the decryption tool is still seriously impacted and then JBS, who had their international meat packing production halted for a period.

So, what does this mean?

Ransomware: For Governments/Regulators

Governments are concerned at the highest level.  And rightly so.  These attacks are starting to impact the ordinary consumer leading to social, economic and political consequences.  The disruptions have been far reaching. The Colonial attack meant changing regulations to temporarily permit large volume road haulage of fuel and a rise in pump petrol prices. Attacks on the healthcare and education sectors were more severe, with treatments and operations being cancelled. Even schools have been closed and other services disrupted.

Aside from top level talks at the G7 summit and between Presidents Biden and Putin, there are several more tactical initiatives.  Guidelines issued in the USA and UK have been published and several nations, including Australia where the Essential 8 standard already has a malware focus, have increased their attention on this matter.

In Australia for example, there have been calls for mandatory notifications of ransomware attacks as with privacy breaches.  France has reportedly banned the payment of ransoms by insurers and in the US the SEC and OFAC have been looking to ban ransom payments, particularly to countries where trade/economic sanctions have been imposed, and invariably from where these ransomware attacks are launched.

Ransomware: For Companies

Organisations cannot ignore the ransomware risk.  Particularly those that are part of critical infrastructure, so finance, utilities, food, health, education, retail, transportation, energy etc… the list is long.

Colonial Pipeline Co

Colonial Pipeline Co was a high profile ransomware attack

In the past there has been a heavy reliance on detection, with enhancements to anti-virus software suites and network defences, the rise of endpoint detection and response (EDR and its successor XDR).  These technologies are all familiar and are designed to stop a ransomware attack in its tracks and do something about it before it spreads.

It needs more than a silver bullet

Increasingly however, there has been more consideration around better controls to prevent ransomware attacks in the first place.  The recent UK National Cyber Security Centre and White House recommendations on best practice to protect against ransomware each recommend the use of multiple security controls. These controls can be categorised into three avenues of effort or investment.  The first two are prevention of the initial infection then containment or limitation of its spread.  If these two are coupled with a third strategy, recovery, then the resistance to a ransomware attack, or the readiness of the organisation for one is heightened.

In reality, this means better cyber hygiene controls across the board. Many of these attacks penetrate the organisation through vulnerabilities that really should have been managed. If they can be contained, however, their repercussions can often still be minimised.  Examples of these three areas are:

Prevention

Containment

Recovery

  • Application execution control
  • Patching applications
  • Configure macro/document settings
  • Hardening user applications/browsers
  • Firewalls/perimeter security
  • Staff awareness
  • Restricting administrative privileges
  • Patching operating systems
  • Multi-factor authentication
  • Anti-virus software
  • Daily backups
  • Incident Management

 

This was precisely the approach used in the original Australian Cyber Security Centre’s Essential 8 framework (which uses a number of the controls above), but there is considerable overlap here too between the US CMMC standard, the UK’s Cyber Essentials scheme and recent UK and US guidance on ransomware.

So, detection is good, but it’s not infallible. Readiness and resistance as well are better (and ideally these should be used in concert) because they utilise the principle of layered security – defence-in-depth – to improve your overall cyber maturity. Afterall, its not just ransomware that presents a cyber risk to business.

For boards, the ability to get reports of the effectiveness of these controls is a key performance indicator; equally important is getting visibility of the state of their cyber defences.  You do not want the first sign of a weakness in your controls to show up when it’s the one that’s exploited by a ransomware attacker.  We’ve discussed this at length before in our blogs here and here.

Ransomware: For Insurers

Lastly, the cyber insurance market is being affected by ransomware, and not just directly as in the case of CNA Financial.  When an attack occurs the victim organisation wants to claim on cyber insurance and have the ransom paid quickly; and until now that has been pretty much the case.

As noted earlier, however, ransom payments by insurers may soon be outlawed. Right now cyber insurers are taking a much greater interest in the ransomware safeguards and attack readiness of organisations seeking insurance. Supplementary questionnaires are being issued to policy holders and new customers in an effort to better quantify their readiness and so risk of attack (questionnaires may not be the best way to gain assurance) and so premiums for less well defended businesses have risen sharply. Worse, for some the inability to verify adequate ransomware readiness has meant the added burden of co-insurance or even no insurance at all.

Conclusions

The bottom line is that organisations must lift their game, both in terms of their verifiable levels of defence against ransomware (the effectiveness of security controls) and their ability to use those metrics to effectively manage their wider cyber risk management programs.

This is being demanded by boards everywhere, who do not want the risk of large-scale disruption to their businesses and who are in fact accountable for the better management of cyber security risks.

For those that are insured, there will also be an economic benefit:  better controls will mean lower premiums and a realistic chance of getting a claim paid.

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