Ransomware in reality: people pay

In real life, noble intentions give way to business truths

Everyone knows the mantra: if you're infected with ransomware, don't pay up as it just encourages more attacks.

By paying the attacker, the theory goes, you're proving that their method of extortion works that they will make money (potentially a lot of it) by holding data hostage.

However, at this year's RSA Conference, there's been a shift in tone within the security community. While nobody is outright advising businesses, or individuals, to pay up, they are acknowledging that many companies that fall victim to a ransomware attack do just that. Indeed, a survey by IBM towards the end of 2016 showed around 70% of companies affected by ransomware have paid to get data back, with payouts reaching the $1 billion mark that year.

Why businesses pay

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There's one strong business imperative to pay ransomware: it's less expensive to cough up than it is to hold out against the attackers.

"You may say 'look, we have a business principle here, we're not going to pay the bad guys'. But if you're confronted with the business reality of paying the bad guys a few Bitcoins versus being offline or losing millions of dollars worth of data, your business principle might give way to the business reality of having to pay the ransom," said Ed Skoudis, an instructor at the SANS Institute, during a panel titled The Seven Most Dangerous New Attack Techniques.

Marcin Kleczynski, CEO of Malwarebytes, gave the example not of crypto ransomware, but of a DDoS-based ransom attack, where a business is taken offline until a ransom is paid.

Speaking to IT Pro, he said: "Imagine a botnet being pointed at an airline's ticketing website, which produces tens-of-millions of dollars in revenue per hour. I [as the botnet controller] say 'this will continue unless you pay me $1 million now."

"$1 million is much less than the $10 million it makes per hour, so why not extort that kind of money?"

Indeed, having a backup and recovery system in place is no guarantee that a company won't pay the ransom, even though in theory it should negate the need to do so.

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Jeremiah Grossman, chief of security strategy at SentinelOne, told IT Pro: "What we find in [our] research, of those who pay the ransom around 50% actually have backups. So the backups aren't a panacea.

"What happens is, say you have the backups but the bad guys have encrypted 1,000 of your machines. IT says 'yeah, we'll recover, no problem in a week'."

If the ransom is only $50,000, Grossman said, then they "write the cheque", as it's more expedient and quite possibly cheaper.

Ransomware, consumers and the IoT

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For businesses that do end up hit by ransomware, there is at least some consolation in the form of cyber insurance an industry that's currently raking in an estimated $3 billion in the US alone as well as access to sophisticated defensive tools and backup and recovery.

For consumers, the situation is a little more bleak.

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"[They're] going to get left out for a while," said Grossman. "There's nothing out there for the consumer yet. It's going to be unfortunate while the enterprise can leverage cyber insurance, crisis management teams to negotiate, high-end, really next-gen antivirus, there's no equivalent for the home user. They're really going to be on their own and that's really going to be pretty nasty."

As well as being nasty, it could also be a very expensive experience. While now it may be a consumer's computer or phone held to ransom, with the IoT the potential targets will expand dramatically. What's more, consumers may be left with no option but to give into the cyber criminals' demands.

"If ransomware were to reconfigure or encrypt the control architecture of Internet of Things devices, we have a big problem," said Skoudis.

"What would you pay to turn your lights back on? What would you pay to turn your heat back on? Or your car you want to drive your car to work today? You're going to have to pay ransomware for that."

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