The ransomware readiness trinity: prevention, containment and recovery

Ransomware readiness is far better than cleaning-up after an attack

2021 is undoubtedly ‘the year of ransomware’. The Colonial Pipeline attack in May, highlighted the scale of the cyber risk for utilities and infrastructure industries more generally. All it took was a single password breach for criminals to demand, and receive, a US$4m ransom. Although the ransom might sound costly, the wider damage to revenue and reputation caused to a giant like Colonial Pipeline will ultimately be much higher. Even more recently, the Kaseya case highlighted the exposure that businesses can have through their supply chains and service providers. One recent report was that the Kaseya attack itself, had infected over one million endpoints with a ransom set at $70m.

A cause for alarm

Colonial Pipeline Co was fortunate in having a potential ‘quick fix’ option: to pay the ransom. That situation might soon change, if laws banning the payment of ransoms start to be passed in various countries. In Australia, there have been calls for mandatory notifications of ransomware attacks; and in the US, the SEC and OFAC are looking at banning ransom payments altogether. Interestingly, this may not mean much change for some. In a number of cases already, despite ransoms being paid, the decryption process has been so slow that companies have had to rely on backups and their own safeguards on order to return to BAU.

Cyber insurance helps businesses manage two of their biggest risks – getting back up and running quickly and reducing disruption. Insurers, however, are increasingly demanding evidence of operational security controls and even co-insurance of cyber risk for some, where these are less apparent. Everything points to the likelihood that premiums will increase even further for organisations that are less well defended. So getting your cyber risk management capabilities in place may be more important than you think. You may need them to get insurance and you most certainly will if you can’t!

A closer look at the challenges

The energy, oil and gas sectors face some specific challenges. They have extensive and often remote networks to defend; IT assets at drilling platforms or production facilities, often interconnected by both public and private infrastructure, back to HQ. Inevitably cyber security efforts are less rigorous at some of these remote sites and so security controls like multi-factor authentication are a particularly important defence for remote IT facilities.

Any relaxation of security at remote facilities is inevitably seen by an attacker as an opportunity to access assets which would otherwise be protected more rigorously back in HQ. As with environmental and other risks in the energy, oil and gas sectors, letting your guard down at a remote site can present a weak link in your risk management defences, and as a result, a costly breach to clean up and make good.

The sheer number and variety of security devices and systems in use can also pose challenges as they provide an almost endless number of points through which an attacker can access and then encrypt, even one part of the system, to render it useless. Colonial’s weak link was its billing system, rather than the technology that controlled the pipeline; but the interconnectivity of the systems meant that the pipeline network itself had to be isolated to limit the damage.

In our changing world, if paying ransoms is outlawed or too costly, and insurance becomes less of an option, the energy, oil and gas industry will need to improve its cyber risk management capabilities.

Ransomware readiness

Anti-virus software and network defences, alongside the rise of endpoint detection and response, can certainly help businesses manage attacks. But these solutions are reactive in that they rely on detecting the attack as malicious in the first place. What if your endpoint solution misses the attack without warning? Do you have a ‘defence-in-depth’ strategy or is there a single point of failure? Do you have visibility to know what’s happening? Are there other controls in place that can mitigate the threat? More attention must be given to ‘layering’ your defences to prevent or at least limit successful ransomware attacks before they do serious damage.

There are three elements of a cyber-attack sequence to focus on. The first is the prevention of any initial infection; and the second, containment or limitation of the spread, if one does occur. This then, needs to be coupled to the third element, recovery, which allows systems and data to be restored in the event of the failure of the other controls. The principles of effective risk management apply – triage the risks and manage them accordingly.

There are some important safeguards organisations can adopt to support each of these elements:

Prevention

  • Application control – ensuring only approved software can run on a computer system, securing systems by limiting what they can execute
  • Application patching applications must be regularly updated to prevent intruders using known vulnerabilities in software
  • Macro security checking that macro and document settings are correctly configured and to prevent the activation of malicious code
  • Harden user applications and browsers use effective security policies to limit user access to active content and web code
  • Firewalls/network gateways – and even physical on-site security – limit user access outbound and remote connections inbound
  • Staff awareness – while not a technical control, building a better understanding and expertise by staff about cyber security, the threats and mitigation strategies that can minimize cyber-attacks, is vital.

Containment

  • Restrict administrative privileges – limit admin privileges by allowing only those staff needing system access to do so, for specified purposes and controlling what those admins can access
  • Operating system patching – fully patched operating systems will significantly reduce the likelihood of malware or ransomware spreading across the network from system to system
  • Multi-factor authentication – used to manage user access to highly sensitivity accounts and systems (including remote users)
  • Anti-virus – install anti-virus software and keep it updated

Recovery

  • Daily backups – secure data and system backups off site and test your recovery processes
  • Incident management – in preparation for a worst-case scenario make sure there is a documented and practiced plan with everyone well versed in the incident management playbook

Monitor your controls closely. If one aspect of the chain of control stops working, IT teams need to know quickly to respond. A ‘cyber culture’ and making cyber security a board level issue will improve overall corporate preparedness.

Accountabilities for cyber security are changing. The board must receive reports that provide clear visibility of these controls, or KPIs, of the security posture of their environment. The measurement of these KPIs must become part of an active cyber security risk management process. Being able to monitor your readiness and assess your risk across these KPIs provides a ’multi-point’ early warning system and confirmation that an effective cyber security program is in hand.

The energy, oil and gas sectors face many challenges and there is no easy fix for cyber security risk management. A big ransomware attack can disrupt supplies and impact broader operations for a long time, as Maersk found to their cost.

The best way to protect an organisation is with strong cyber defences and controls, backed up by regular checks to mitigate any identified shortcomings as necessary. If one control fails to identify the attack, not all is lost, as other subsequent controls are available to limit its access and the progress of any impact. That way the risk of a successful attack is minimised and hopefully you’ll be on the front foot in an attack well before any disruption to your systems and operations.

Article originally published in Energy, Oil & Gas Magazine.

Interested in the ransomware readiness topic? Read our Ransomware blog series, prevention , containment and recovery.

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