As more sensitive data like intellectual property and personally identifiable information and protected health information (PII/PHI) is stored online, cyber threats like ransomware attacks are becoming more frequent and sophisticated. Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts a victim’s data and demands payment in exchange for the restoration of access. These attacks are designed to disrupt and control the victim’s data, causing significant financial losses and impacting business operations. The success of these attacks lies in their ability to exploit vulnerabilities in a target’s security system, making it essential for organizations to be vigilant and proactive in protecting their sensitive data. As such, it is crucial for organizations to be aware of the potential threat posed by ransomware and to take the necessary steps to prevent these attacks.
What Is a Ransomware Attack?
A ransomware attack occurs when a hacker infects a computer or network with malicious software that encrypts the victim’s files and demands payment in exchange for the decryption key. The attacker then requires payment in cryptocurrency, such as bitcoin, to provide the decryption key and restore access to the encrypted files. The attacker typically gains access to a target’s system through a phishing email, a software vulnerability, or a weak password. Ransomware attacks can have devastating consequences for organizations. The encrypted files may contain sensitive information, such as financial data, customer data, trade secrets, or confidential business documents. The loss of this information can result in business disruption, leading to financial losses, litigation, and long-term reputational damage. Moreover, paying the ransom does not guarantee the return of the encrypted files, as the attacker may not honor their promise or may infect the system with additional malware.
Different Types of Ransomware
Over the past decade, ransomware has become a major threat to organizations, causing significant disruptions to business operations. To effectively protect against ransomware attacks, it is essential to understand the different types of ransomware and how they infect systems. Let’s examine the various types of ransomware and their methods of attack.
Crypto ransomware encrypts a victim’s data, making it inaccessible, and demands payment, typically in cryptocurrency like bitcoin, in exchange for the decryption key. Crypto ransomware is often spread through phishing emails or exploiting software or operating systems vulnerabilities. The most well-known example of crypto ransomware is WannaCry, which infected hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries in 2017. Crypto ransomware does not typically lock the user out of their system (see “Locker Ransomware” below). Instead, it encrypts files with a private key that only the attacker possesses, making it impossible for the victim to access their files without the corresponding decryption key. The attacker then demands payment in exchange for the decryption key, which is required to unlock the encrypted files.
Locker ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to infect a victim’s computer system and encrypt their files, rendering them inaccessible without a decryption key. This ransomware derives its name from its ability to “lock” the victim’s files, making them inaccessible until a ransom is paid.
Locker ransomware typically demands payment in the form of a prepaid card, while crypto ransomware usually demands payment in cryptocurrency, such as bitcoin. This is because cryptocurrency transactions are harder to trace, making it easier for attackers to remain anonymous.
Scareware is a type of ransomware that tricks users into believing their computer is infected with viruses or other malware. Scareware often displays pop-up windows or fake alerts that warn the user of a nonexistent threat and encourage them to purchase fake or ineffective antivirus software.
Scareware is different from locker ransomware and crypto ransomware in several key ways. While locker ransomware and crypto ransomware typically encrypt or lock files to demand a ransom, scareware does not involve encryption or file locking. Instead, scareware relies on social engineering tactics to scare users into taking action.
Disk-encryption ransomware is commonly disseminated through phishing emails or exploitation of software or operating systems vulnerabilities. This ransomware encrypts a victim’s entire hard drive, making all of their data inaccessible, and demands payment in exchange for the decryption key.
Mobile ransomware infects mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets. It restricts access to the device or data, typically by locking the device’s screen or encrypting data, and demands payment in exchange for restoring access. Mobile ransomware is often spread through phishing emails or the downloading of malicious apps from unsecured app stores.
Protecting Sensitive Communications From Ransomware Attacks
With so much sensitive information stored and transmitted electronically, it is essential to ensure that this information is protected from ransomware attacks and other potential threats. Secure sensitive communications can be characterized by encryption and multi-factor authentication technologies, secure servers, and trusted third-party providers.
Email encryption, for example, is designed to scramble email messages and attachments when transmitted, making them unreadable in the event they’re intercepted. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an authentication process for online accounts that requires two or more independent forms of authentication to access an account. MFA provides an additional layer of security by requiring the user to provide more than just a username and password to gain access. Secure servers, by contrast, are equipped with robust security features, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and antivirus software. Finally, trusted third-party providers like managed security service providers (MSSPs), cloud access security brokers (CASBs), systems integrators (SIs), and some hardware and software manufacturers typically feature a more defensible infrastructure and an employee base with advanced or specialized security training.
The failure to secure sensitive communication from ransomware attacks can have severe consequences for businesses. Risks include but are not limited to:
PCI DSS Noncompliance
The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a set of security standards designed to ensure that all companies that accept, process, store, or transmit credit card information maintain a secure environment to protect cardholder data. If an organization suffers a data breach due to inadequate security measures and exposes customers’ cardholder data, it may face penalties and fines for failing to comply with PCI DSS requirements.
Data Breaches and Loss of Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
In a ransomware attack, PII, protected health information (PHI), financial data, and other confidential information may be compromised and potentially leaked. This can result in reputational damage, loss of customer trust, and class action litigation for failure to protect sensitive customer data.
If an organization in the healthcare industry experiences a ransomware attack, it may violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA sets standards for protecting the privacy and security of PHI and imposes penalties for noncompliance.
Ransomware attacks often result in the attacker demanding payment in exchange for the encrypted data. Even if the ransom is paid, there is no guarantee that the attacker will release the encrypted data. If an organization refuses to pay the ransom, hackers may threaten to use a “shaming site.” Shaming sites typically feature a list of companies being held for ransom and the details of the data they have obtained. The site may also include screenshots of the data, links to download the information, or links to other websites where the data has been posted. The goal of the shaming site is to publicly embarrass a company and pressure them into paying the ransom.
In most instances, a ransomware attack results in the temporary or permanent loss of access to critical systems and data, causing significant business disruptions that can range from inconvenient to life-threatening. Examples of business disruption include:
- Hospital systems being forced to turn away patients
- Employees being locked out of their work computers, resulting in disruption of customer service
- Manufacturing plants and supply chains being shut down
- Online stores unable to process orders
- Digital payment networks being disabled
- Government services being affected
- Computer-aided design and engineering systems being shut down
- Banking services being unavailable
- Retailers unable to take payments or access customer data
- Data centers being taken offline
- Files, documents, and backups being encrypted and rendered inaccessible
- Businesses being unable to access critical systems or applications
Best Practices for Protecting Against Ransomware Attacks
To protect against ransomware attacks, it is essential to implement robust security measures and follow best practices. Some of the best practices for protecting against ransomware attacks include:
Regular Software Updates
Regular software updates play a critical role in protecting against ransomware attacks in cybersecurity. Attackers identify and exploit software vulnerabilities to launch malware or ransomware attacks.
Updates to software address known vulnerabilities in the system that attackers can exploit to gain unauthorized access to a device and install ransomware. Software vendors release updates to fix these vulnerabilities, and by regularly updating software, users ensure that their systems are protected against the latest threats.
Moreover, updates also include security patches that enhance the overall security of a system by improving its ability to detect and prevent attacks. This is particularly important in the case of ransomware attacks, as attackers are constantly evolving their tactics and developing new strains of malware. By keeping software updated, users can stay ahead of these growing threats and reduce the risk of a successful attack.
A strong password, a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters, makes it much harder for an attacker to guess or crack the password. This significantly reduces the risk of a successful attack, as attackers often use automated tools to try and decrypt passwords via a brute-force attack, and a strong password can withstand such attempts.
In addition, using a unique password for each online account (also known as “password diversity”) is crucial. Once an attacker gains access to one report, they may be able to access multiple other accounts that use the same password. Reusing the same password for various accounts increases the risk of a successful attack.
Implementing two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security to a password by requiring an additional verification form, such as a code sent to a phone or generated by an authentication app, in addition to the password. This makes it much more difficult for attackers to gain access to systems and the sensitive content they hold, even if they have obtained the password.
A frequent, recurring backup of essential data allows the affected user to restore their data to a pre-attack state, bypassing the need to pay the ransom demand. Backups can be stored on an external hard drive, cloud storage, or other secure storage solution. Backups should be updated regularly to ensure that the most recent version of the data is available in the event of an attack.
Additionally, implementing a backup strategy that includes regular testing of backup data to ensure its integrity, and storing backup data in a separate and secure location, such as an offsite location or a disconnected backup device (also known as “air-gapped backups”), is crucial. This protects the backup data from being infected or encrypted by the ransomware and ensures that it is available for restoration even in the event of a successful attack.
By implementing email security measures, such as spam filters, and email authentication protocols, such as Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC), Sender Policy Framework (SPF), and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), organizations can significantly reduce the risk of a successful phishing attack.
Spam filters help to detect and prevent the delivery of malicious emails. In contrast, email authentication protocols verify the sender’s identity and ensure that the email has not been altered in transit. This helps to prevent phishing emails appearing to be from a trusted source, making it less likely that a recipient will be tricked into clicking on a malicious link or downloading malware.
In addition, user awareness and training on identifying and avoiding phishing emails are also crucial and should be a part of every organization’s security risk management strategy. By educating employees on the importance of email security and providing them with the tools and information needed to identify and avoid phishing emails, organizations can reduce the risk of a successful attack and ensure that their users are better prepared to respond to phishing attacks.
Monitoring is a critical aspect of protecting against ransomware attacks in cybersecurity. Organizations can detect potential ransomware attacks early by continuously monitoring systems, networks, and endpoints for suspicious activity, allowing them to respond quickly and prevent or mitigate damage.
Implementing security information and event management (SIEM) solutions, which collect, analyze, and correlate log data from multiple sources, is critical to effective monitoring. This allows organizations to detect unusual or suspicious activity, such as attempts to access sensitive data or network infrastructure, and respond accordingly.
In addition, real-time endpoint protection solutions, such as endpoint detection and response (EDR), are also crucial. These solutions monitor endpoints, such as laptops and servers, for signs of malware or other malicious activity and can help organizations to detect and respond to ransomware attacks before they cause significant damage.
Monitoring should also include regular security assessments and vulnerability scans, which can identify potential weaknesses in an organization’s systems and infrastructure and allow organizations to take steps to mitigate the risk of a successful attack.
Protect Sensitive Content From Ransomware With Kiteworks
Kiteworks is a private content network that provides organizations with a secure platform for managing and sharing sensitive data. With its advanced security features and encryption technology, Kiteworks helps to protect private data and communication from ransomware attacks and other security threats.
One of the critical features of Kiteworks is its granular access controls, which allow administrators to restrict access to sensitive data based on user roles and permissions. This helps to prevent unauthorized access to data, even in the event of a ransomware attack.
Another critical component of Kiteworks’ security is its backup and disaster recovery (BDR) capabilities. Kiteworks automatically backs up data regularly, providing organizations with peace of mind that their data can be restored during an attack. This also helps to minimize the impact of a ransomware attack, as organizations can quickly restore data from a backup and get back to business as usual.
To learn more about how Kiteworks can help protect your organization, contact us today to schedule a demo.
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