Ransomware used to be mainly on the radar of people who worked in IT security. That is no longer the case. Even John Oliver knows about it now, and is talking about it, leading to his viral video. It’s easy to see why, as these attacks are now arguably the single-biggest threat prowling the Internet today. A ransomware attack allows malicious parties to obtain or lock valuable data, forcing the data owners to pay a ransom to retrieve their information or to prevent its release to the public. In case you haven’t seen the video – here it is, it’s hilarious:
This past year saw the risks of ransomware expand beyond compromised data and into business operations and social behaviors. While the Colonial Pipeline attack, which Oliver referenced, did not impact the pipeline system’s ability to supply gasoline, panic buying by consumers led to gas shortages throughout the Southeast. Further, Kaseya, an IT software provider for businesses, was compromised by ransomware and unintentionally infected many of its clients.
The cities of Baltimore and New Orleans and various police departments were targeted as well, with 85% of these victims lacking IT security staff. Perhaps the most disturbing trend has been the attack on healthcare facilities, with 560 institutions hit by ransomware in 2020. There is a fast payout for attackers when targeting a hospital, adding to the risk of operation. One attack was so severe for a Vermont hospital that it had to turn cancer patients away from scheduled treatments.
Ransomware Is an Attractive Attack Mode
Ransomware’s growing prominence in the media and, hence, to the general public, is due in large measure to the simplicity of launching an attack and the resulting financial rewards. Ransoms paid in 2021 quadrupled to over $350 million.
Attacks on businesses rarely make the news, as organizations scramble to prevent PR nightmares. And while the revenues generated by ransomware attacks continue to increase, the tools for carrying them out have become more accessible.
3 Contributing Factors to Ransomware’s Rise
There are three factors that help attackers reap financial benefits:
- Ransomware has literally joined the “add to cart” e-commerce crowd and can include customer service features and teaching aids. Known as ransomware-as-a-service, hackers develop ransomware tools that can be installed by anyone, and they sell them to customers for a share of the profit. An attacker no longer needs to be a programmer, and can launch an attack with little or no IT knowledge.
- The rise of cryptocurrencies makes it easier to make money, and it makes payments harder to trace. Some cryptocurrencies, such as Monero, have placed discrete messages in their advertising to attract the business of would-be criminals.
- Countries such as China and Russia that act as safe havens for attackers allow them to work, in most cases, without fear of legal ramifications from the local government. If an attacker doesn’t make trouble in their locale or use domains such as .cn or .ru to launch an attack, governments may turn a blind eye to activities occurring within their borders.
What Can You Do?
The U.S. government has been slow in developing a response strategy to ransomware attacks. That said, the U.S. Department of Justice has formed a task force for discouraging such attacks, and $1 billion has been allocated to help local governments improve security. This provides a fair middle ground of relief, but more action is needed to stay ahead of the curve.
There are a few actions you can take that will go a long way toward keeping you and your organization from becoming a statistic:
- Set up multifactor authentication
- Keep computers up to date on operating system and software security patches
- Educate yourself and others on how to avoid engaging in phishing attacks
As our reliance on being interconnected increases, including an expansion of the IoT into home systems and appliances, so does potential areas of harm caused by a ransomware attack. Building and maintaining awareness is key in the fight against the proliferation of ransomware.
John Oliver has made us more aware of the problem, and it’s up to us to provide solutions.