With ransomware on the rise, cryptographers take it personally

The security industry is not doing enough and it's going to get worse, they said

Some of the world's leading cryptographers are concerned about the increasing number of malicious programs that hold computers and mobile phones to ransom, in many cases by abusing the encryption algorithms they designed.

Despite law enforcement efforts to disrupt ransomware operations, the prevalence of such programs continued to grow last year, according to a report published Thursday by antivirus vendor F-Secure.

A family of ransomware programs known as Browlock, which impersonates police agencies and asks users to pay fictitious fines in order to regain control of their computers, was one of the top 10 PC threats during the second half of 2014, according to F-Secure's statistics. An increase was also observed among the ransomware threats for Android phones.

While Browlock only prevents users from accessing their desktop, there are other ransomware programs that are much more aggressive and hard to recover from. These threats include Cryptolocker, CryptoWall and CTB-Locker, which encrypt users' files with strong cryptographic algorithms, making it impossible to recover them in the absence of unaffected backups or without paying for the decryption keys.

In what is almost a testament to how audacious and effective these threats are, there have already been several cases of police departments being forced to pay criminals to decrypt their files.

"I think it's a very serious problem," said Adi Shamir, co-inventor of the widely used RSA cryptosystem, when asked about ransomware on a discussion panel at the RSA security conference earlier this week. "It's going to stay with us and we need to think about new techniques to stop it."

Shamir believes that ransomware is an area where the security community failed "in a miserable way," because there are no good products to protect against it. And this is just the beginning, he thinks.

Today ransomware can affect your PC or your mobile phone, but it's only a matter of time until your smart TV and other Internet of Things devices will also be held to ransom, he said.

That time is probably not too far in the future. F-Secure noted in its report the emergence last year of a ransomware program called SynoLocker that infected network-attached storage (NAS) devices made by a company called Synology.

Most file-encrypting ransomware threats use public-key cryptography, where the data is encrypted with a public key that's part of a public-private key pair. Recovering this public encryption key from infected systems does not help, because only the private key, which attackers retain on their servers, can be used to decrypt the data.

Public-key cryptography underpins some of the Internet's most widely used security protocols including SSL/TLS and GPG.

When introducing the topic of ransomware, the RSA panel's moderator, Cryptography Research President Paul Kocher, described it as "the pure evil incarnation of public-key cryptography."

MIT professor Ron Rivest, co-inventor of RSA with Shamir and Leonard Adleman, noted that while cryptography is used mostly for good, as most technologies, it can also be used for bad.

Despite knowing this, the abuse of the RSA algorithm by many ransomware programs, makes him feel "sort of like a mother whose son was brainwashed and left to become a jihadist in Syria," he said.

The ransomware problem is not restricted to attackers encrypting other people's data, said Whitfield Diffie, one of the pioneers of public-key cryptography. In order to do pull off a ransomware attack, criminals need to first penetrate someone's computer and use some sort of exploit, he said.

Once an attacker has that level of access on a system, even if the potential data loss problem is solved, they will find something else to blackmail the user with, he said.

Another thing to point out is that the ability of ransomware creators to extort money from users depends in part on anonymous payments, Rivest said. Anonymous communications between people is essential for democracy, but the value of anonymous payments is debatable, he said.

Most file-encrypting ransomware programs require payments to be made in Bitcoin.

The abuse of encryption algorithms is certainly not going to stop cryptographic research and advances. However, it will be interesting to see if the ransomware problem will make its way into the rhetoric of government officials, who are increasingly pushing for ways to bypass encryption so that police and intelligence agencies can perform lawful intercepts.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags fraudmalwaredata protectionf-secure

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

Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?