Ransomware is an infection that encrypts files and systems, then demands payment in exchange for the decryption key. It's an invasive and costly type of cyberattack.
The first known ransomware attack was the AIDS Trojan in 1989, widely considered the model for all subsequent malware.
The AIDS Trojan employed simple symmetric encryption to protect victims' data. They were then required to send $189 via mail to a Panamanian post office in exchange for the decryption key.
The First Ransomware Attack
Ransomware is malware that encrypts data files, making them inaccessible until payment is made to the cybercriminal. This makes it difficult for victims to restore their encrypted data and prevents them from accessing crucial information.
Ransomware also employs social engineering tactics in addition to encryption. This involves manipulating the victim into sharing personal or confidential information or opening a malicious file, usually through emails and text messages that scare them into disclosing this information.
The Evolution of Ransomware
Ransomware is a type of cybercrime requiring victims to pay money to access their systems and files. This crime has an extensive history, as cybercriminals have adapted their techniques through technological advancement.
In 1996, a computer virus called the "AIDS Trojan" unleashed ransomware upon victims worldwide. This ransomware hid file directories and locked file names and instructed them to regain access to their data by mailing $189 to a P.O. box in Panama for restoration.
Though the AIDS Trojan was not a successful extortion tool, it was an early example of ransomware. Its symmetric encryption made it easy to identify; security professionals could compare encrypted and unencrypted files for its decryption key.
Ransomware evolved in the late 2000s to more complex attacks utilizing advanced cryptographic algorithms. Malware such as "PGPcoder" and "Archiveus," which encrypted users' Windows systems and required a password to unlock them, began appearing.
Meanwhile, "Archiveus" and other ransomware variants used asymmetric encryption methods to make decrypting encrypted data more challenging. Asymmetric encryption utilizes public and private keys for encryption - the public key being what cybercriminals use when encrypting files. In contrast, the private key allows for the decryption of those same files.
In the early 2010s, locker ransomware and stronger encryption algorithms began to appear due to the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. These digital assets provided threat actors with a new means for receiving payments from victims that were both easy to use and untraceable.
The Biggest Ransomware Attacks in History
Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts files on a computer and demands payment in exchange for the decryption key. It can lock down systems or deny access to data, making it increasingly attractive to cybercriminals due to its high return on investment.
Although malware can spread via various methods, such as phishing emails, spear phishing attacks, email attachments, and malicious worms, the most prevalent way is exploiting vulnerable websites or systems - particularly with Internet of Things (IoT) devices which pose an increasingly large threat.
In 2017, Petya ransomware (formerly known as GoldenEye) struck over 2,000 targets worldwide, including banks and large energy firms. The malware encrypted the master boot record of Windows-based systems, rendering them unusable. It then demanded ransom payments in Bitcoin - a form of digital currency.
Another prominent variant is Sodinokibi, also known as REvil, which first surfaced in 2019. This malware employs multiple infection vectors like phishing emails and exploit kits and also employs stealth tactics like command and control via Tor and advanced obfuscation.
Ransomware attacks have become particularly lucrative targets within the healthcare industry, which requires access to patient information and stores highly sensitive data. Therefore, protecting healthcare institutions against ransomware attacks is essential to avoid data loss.
Ransomware attackers typically demand payment in digital currencies like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. These anonymous payments don't need to be transferred or verified by a third party, making them ideal for cybercriminals seeking anonymity. Other payment methods for cyber criminals include prepaid cash services, Western Union transfers, and gift cards.
The Future of Ransomware
As we continue to encounter attacks and variants of ransomware, IT teams must adapt their security strategies. Attackers are constantly evolving and testing new methods to maximize revenue while limiting the damage caused.
Ransomware businesses rely heavily on a decentralized marketplace for malicious software. Developers sell their wares to distributors, who sell them to hackers and cybercriminals on the dark web. Once ransoms are paid, cryptocurrency money launderers scrub away any funds and return them to original actors such as developers, distributors, and others involved in the ransomware cycle.
Malware is often employed for crypto mining or forcing users to mine digital currencies like cryptocurrency. Since digital mining assets require expensive electricity, attackers are incentivized to take money from victims.
Ransomware has also seen an uptick in targeting businesses. These attacks disrupt productivity and cost businesses money; as a result, these attacks have become more commonplace.
Government officials and security vendors have responded by increasing their response to ransomware threats. In 2021, 30 nations joined forces to discuss a counter-ransomware strategy that included cybersecurity regulation, resilience, and attack disruption.
Ransomware has yet to be fully determined, but it will remain a top cybersecurity risk for years. Furthermore, governments will increasingly get involved in regulating cryptocurrencies and decreasing financial incentives for ransomware attacks; this could significantly alter the landscape of ransomware threats.
Protecting Against Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts data, then prevents users from accessing or using it until the attackers are paid a fee.
An effective way to protect against ransomware attacks is to have a better cyber defense plan. This must include training employees, monitoring network events, and responding to attack incidents as they arise.
One of the essential components of any security plan is backups. Organizations should regularly back up critical data to an external storage device or cloud-based backup service, with copies remaining active for at least six months so a forensic investigation can occur in case of an attack.
Another essential ransomware protection element is updating firmware, anti-malware applications, operating systems, and third-party software. Doing this will guarantee your antivirus and malware detection can remain up to date with new ransomware variants and other threats.
Finally, organizations must implement a robust identity access management (IAM) and privilege access management solution. These solutions utilize multi-factor authentication (MFA) for enhanced security, making it harder for hackers to access sensitive data through social engineering techniques.
Ransomware poses a grave danger to organizations of all sizes and sectors. With the right strategy and preparation, businesses can minimize damage and recover quickly after an attack.