The best reason for never giving in to ransomware demands

There are many reasons not to pay ransom to regain access to your data. Let’s opt for the selfish one.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) has a new advisory on the dangers of data extortion in which it stresses that Web servers are now a popular means of entry for ransomware. This is another fine reason for keeping Web servers and their databases completely walled off from more sensitive parts of your networks. Although it would be terrible if attackers were to gain control of your website, letting them do the same to payroll, accounts payable and the supply chain can be far worse.

But the most significant point that the CERT made was that organizations shouldn’t pay ransoms. Ever.

“Paying the ransom does not guarantee the encrypted files will be released. It only guarantees that the malicious actors receive the victim’s money and, in some cases, their banking information,” said the advisory. “In addition, decrypting files does not mean the malware infection itself has been removed.”

As with ransom situations in the physical world, that’s great advice — though it can be very hard to follow it in the middle of an intense hostage drama, when paying the ransom can seem like an easy way to resolve the crisis. We’re well into the digital age, when organizations simply can’t function without their data. That can make them desperate.

But consider what the CERT is saying. “Paying the ransom does not guarantee the encrypted files will be released.” You can hope that you’re dealing with professionals, but you have no way of knowing that. The attackers could be amateurs trying to make extra money or bored teens doing it for entertainment. And even if they are professionals, surely you have heard the old proverb, “There is no honor among thieves.”

What there is among thieves is enough smarts to assess the risks of not keeping their word. They know that it would be bad for business for its victims to announce to the world that they paid a ransom and their data wasn’t restored. A single announcement like that would probably do far more to convince other organizations to never pay a data ransom than a thousand CERT advisories. Come to think of it, if the CERT really wants to stop ransomware victims from paying up, it should encourage as many of them as possible to say that they paid the ransom and didn’t get their data back.

Amateurs and bored teens, however, don’t really think about what’s bad for business. They haven’t thought it through and might even be scared that returning the data would give law enforcement another chance to catch them.

But you know what? If the fear of a dishonest thief not returning your data keeps you from paying the ransom, that works for me.

There is another, more troubling reality, and CERT flagged it: “Decrypting files does not mean the malware infection itself has been removed.” In other words, if you pay the ransom and have your data access restored, that doesn’t mean the threat is gone. Indeed, you have almost no reason to believe that it is.

Having taken the effort to snake his way into your system, why would the thief ever remove that hold? You have now proved yourself to be someone who is willing to pay a ransom. As in any business, the most profitable customers are repeat customers. The most likely scenario is that the thieves will return the data to you and then wait a few weeks, maybe a few months, and then do it to you again. And again.

That’s the real reason to not pay the ransom. If you won’t refuse payment as a way of advancing a societal benefit (if people collectively stop paying ransoms, kidnappers will stop kidnapping), do it for a selfish reason. The bad guys are in your system, and you’re going to need heavy-duty help to remove them fully and completely. Instead of paying the ransom, spend that money on a team that can clean your system out fully. Consider the societal benefit as icing.

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Evan Schuman

Computerworld (US)
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