Features, Insight, Opinion

The Ongoing Evolution of Modern Ransomware

Author: Yossi Naar, Chief Visionary Officer and Co-founder, Cybereason

Ransomware attacks continue to make headlines, and for good reason: on average, there is a new ransomware attack every 11 seconds, and the losses to organisations from ransomware attacks is projected to reach $20 billion over the course of 2021. That rate translates into about 3 million ransomware attacks over a year.

Let that sink in. We are not talking about the number of files encrypted or organisations affected — that’s 3 million unique ransomware attacks against organisations.

The Ransomware Threat: 30 Years in the Making

The majority of organisations that have suffered a ransomware attack experienced significant impact to the business as a result, including loss of revenue, damage to the organisation’s brand, unplanned workforce reductions, and even closure of the business altogether.

There have been over 200 ransomware attacks that have made headlines in 2021 so far — and those are just the ransomware attacks that have been acknowledged publicly. To understand how we got here, we need to look at how the threat has evolved over the years:

1989: The Birth of Ransomware

Look back at 1989, when the first documented case of ransomware emerged. In December of that year, Harvard-educated evolutionary biologist Dr. Joseph Popp sent 20,000 floppy disks infected with a computer virus to individuals who had attended the World Health Organisation’s international AIDS Conference in Stockholm.

Once loaded onto a computer, the virus hid file directories, locked file names, and informed victims that they could only restore access to their files by sending $189 to a P.O. Box located in Panama.

Dr. Popp ended up attracting the attention of authorities while at Schiphol Airport about two weeks after the attack. Subsequently, law enforcement arrested the evolutionary biologist at his parents’ home and extradited him to the UK. There, he faced 10 charges of extortion and criminal damage for distributing what’s now called the “AIDS Trojan”.

2007: Locker Ransomware Variants Emerge

Nearly 20 years later, following the AIDS Trojan incident, the first locker ransomware variants appeared on the threat landscape. These early versions targeted users in Russia by “locking” victims’ machines and preventing them from using their computers’ basic functions like the keyboard and mouse, as noted by researchers at Kennesaw State University.

After displaying an “adult image” on the infected computers, the ransomware instructed victims to either call a premium-rate phone number or send an SMS text message to meet the attackers’ ransom demands.

2013: CryptoLocker Ushers in Modern Crypto-Ransomware

In 2013, a new ransomware threat called “CryptoLocker” installed itself into Windows victims’ “Documents and Settings” folder as well as added itself to the registry list. After connecting to one of its hardcoded command and control (C&C) servers, the threat uploaded a small file to identify its victim and used that file to generate a public-private key pair.

It then leveraged the public key to encrypt victims’ documents, spreadsheets, images, and other files before displaying its ransom note. That message informed the victim that they had 72 hours to pay a ransom demand of $300 — not even pennies on the dollar compared to today’s ransom demands that range into the tens-of-millions.

Attacks involving CryptoLocker became more prevalent in the years that followed. Per Kennesaw State University’s researchers, the FBI estimated that victims had paid $27 million to CryptoLocker’s operators by the end of 2015.

2018: Ransomware Actors Embrace Big Game Hunting

Beginning in 2018, the FBI observed a decline in indiscriminate ransomware attacks. Its analysts saw those campaigns give way to operations targeting businesses — in particular, state and local governments, health care entities, industrial companies, and transportation organisations.

Many ransomware groups made this shift to targeting large organisations so that they could encrypt high value data, undermine victims’ operations, and thereby demand an even higher ransom payment. The report Ransomware: The True Cost to Business mentioned above highlights some of the impact these attacks can have on organisations in the UAE, including:

  • Loss of Business Revenue: 63 percent of UAE organisations reported lost business (19 percent higher than global average) as a result of the ransomware attack and 42 percent reported significant loss of revenue.
  • Brand and Reputation Damage: 54 percent of organisations in the Emirates indicated that their brand and reputation were damaged as a result of a successful attack.
  • C-Level Talent Loss: 50 percent of UAE organisations (19 percent higher than global average) reported losing C-Level talent as a direct result of ransomware attacks.
  • Employee Layoffs: In line with the global average, 29 percent reported being forced to layoff employees due to financial pressures following a ransomware attack.

2019: Maze Ransomware Gang and Double Extortion

Near the end of November of 2019, the Maze group had successfully breached a security staffing company by stealing its information in plaintext before encrypting its files. To prove its claim, the attackers sent along a sample of files stolen from the company and leaked 700 MB of data online soon thereafter.

Other ransomware groups embraced this “double extortion” technique in the months that followed. In doing so, they gave themselves an edge over organisations with a data backup strategy. They knew that victims could use their data copies to still restore infected computers but that they couldn’t reverse the course of data theft.

So, the attackers demanded two ransom payments from their victims, one for the decryption of their data and the other for the deletion of their information off their operation’s servers.

The Rise of Sophisticated RansomOps

In a recent article we discussed how today’s complex RansomOps attacks are more akin to stealthy APT-like operations than the old “spray and pray” mass email spam campaigns like the ones listed above. The article also discussed the larger Ransomware Economy at work, each with their own specialisations.

These players include the Initial Access Brokers (IABs) who lay the groundwork for a ransomware attack by infiltrating a network and moving laterally to maximise the potential impact, and the Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) operators who provide attack infrastructure to affiliates who carry out the attacks.

This level of compromise puts RansomOps attackers in a position where they can demand even bigger ransoms, and RansomOps techniques also commonly involve multiple extortion techniques like the double extortion tactic discussed above.

Some groups have taken things a step further: the Grief ransomware gang had begun threatening to delete a victim’s decryption key if they elected to hire someone to help them negotiate the ransom demand down. This came on the heels of the RagnarLocker group threatening to publish a victim’s data if they notified the FBI or local law enforcement about an infection.

Defending Against Ransomware and RansomOps

It’s possible for organisations to defend against ransomware and RansomOps from the earliest stages of an attack. Remember, the actual ransomware payload is the very tail end of a RansomOps attack, so there are weeks or even months of detectable activity prior to the payload delivery where an attack can be thwarted before there is any serious impact to the targeted organisation.

The key to ending ransomware attacks is to minimise the period between the moment when a RansomOps attack first infiltrates your environment and the moment when the security team can detect and end it. This cannot be achieved using outmoded technologies that rely on threat intelligence derived from commodity or other “known” attacks.

Therefore, many organisations have opted to adopt solutions that can detect unique and highly targeted attacks based on more subtle behavioral signals that can surface these attacks earlier in the kill chain. As these solutions prove more effective than their predecessors, it will be interesting to see how the attackers adapt and continue to evolve their tools and tactics to compensate.

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