With few options, companies pay hush money to data thieves

Companies can face ruin if sensitive data is dumped on the Internet

There's a disturbing new angle to cyberattacks that has become more common over the last year, and it is proving costly for organizations: extortion.

Over the last year, companies have at times paid more than US$1 million in hush money to cyberattackers who have stolen their sensitive data and threatened to release it online, said Charles Carmakal, a vice president with Mandiant, the computer forensics unit of FireEye, in an interview on Wednesday.

"This is where a human adversary has deliberately targeted an organization, has stolen data, has reviewed that data and understands the value of it," Carmakal said. "We have seen seven-figure payouts by organizations that are afraid for that data to be published."

Mandiant outlined such attacks in a new report it issued on Thursday, saying in some cases, executives have been also taunted by hackers.

Extortion attacks are more sophisticated than so-called ransomware such as Cryptolocker, the malware that encrypts a computer's files and where payment is in bitcoin.

While ransomware attacks can be devastating in their bluntness, the payment demanded usually is a few hundred dollars, although some attacks have succeeded in extracting much more.

The extortion attacks, however, are far more meticulous and could be potentially more damaging, especially to a large company. Carmakal said some of the data, if publicly revealed, could potentially put a company out of business.

So "the reality is lots of people are paying," he said.

For Mandiant, which has investigated large data breaches at Target, Home Depot and Anthem, it can be tough to advise an organization about what course of action to take, Carmakal said.

The attackers often don't give much time to allow for a full forensics review to figure out if the hackers are bluffing. And there are fakers looking for an easy payout.

"What we need is proof that someone actually has access to data," Carmakal said. "We get them to send a sample, or we do as quick an investigation as we can."

If forensic artifacts reveal that someone has been sneaking around, next comes a very hard decision: even if a company pays, there's no guarantee that the attackers won't release the data anyway.

"There's absolutely a risk in not paying, and there's a risk in paying," Carmakal said. "Everybody's goal is that they pay the ransom, and the attackers go away and they delete data, but you will never get the confirmation that you want that the attackers have deleted the data."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags data thievessecurity

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?