Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


// // //
10:00 AM
Adam Shostack
Adam Shostack
Connect Directly
E-Mail vvv

Ransomware Is Not the Problem

Arbitrarily powerful software -- applications, operating systems -- is a problem, as is preventing it from running on enterprise systems.

There's an infinite number of studies of ransomware lately, all breathlessly talking about how to fight this dangerous threat. They're all dangerously wrong. Ransomware is not the problem. 

Focusing on fighting ransomware is like fighting a pandemic by focusing on masks. You fight a pandemic by focusing on reducing transmission and improving treatments. Reducing transmission does include masks, and also vaccines, distancing, contact tracing, quarantines, and various levels of restricting movement.

Related Content:

8 Ways Ransomware Operators Target Your Network

Special Report: Assessing Cybersecurity Risk in Today's Enterprises

New From The Edge: A Wrench and a Screwdriver: Critical Infrastructure's Last, Best Lines of Defense?

Back to computer security, the real problem is that organizations are unable to control their technological systems. A symptom of that is that criminals can deploy software, and that software can pick up and modify arbitrary files, but that is only a symptom, and addressing the symptom won't fix the disease.

A criminal gang could, with a modest increase in effort, change a pipeline company's billing software to randomly reduce all bills by an average of 7%, or sell coupons that give buyers a discount. They could insert malware into software sold by a networking company to compromise its customers.

That organizations cannot control their software is a problem with a thousand parts. Crucially, software is complex and flexible, and it's assembled from components in unique ways. The patterns involved in effective operation are unclear and rapidly changing. 

Many of these emerging patterns, as practiced at Google, are described in an excellent and thought-provoking book, Building Secure and Reliable Systems. The book describes how Google has reconsidered how to build systems, and in doing so, produced a new set of patterns. It's tempting to describe these as cloud-native, but they predate the cloud, and are broader than the cloud — they include things that only a cloud provider can do, and they include desktop/end-user services that traditionally are in the realm of the help desk.

In fact, a critique of Building Secure and Reliable Systems is that many of the approaches they suggest, like rewriting the authentication system for all of your software, are hard even if you're Google, and appear impossible for mere-mortal engineering teams. But that doesn't mean the patterns are either wrong or not worthy of consideration. 

One such worthwhile pattern is to use "least privilege" to isolate components from each other. In traditional desktop software like Windows or macOS, applications can do roughly anything the person behind the keyboard can do, including run random software. More recently designed operating systems behave differently. For example, if you're running on Chromebooks or iPads, you can't run arbitrary software on them. Ransomware is not the problem. Arbitrarily powerful software is a problem; the difficulty of preventing arbitrary software running on enterprise systems is a problem. 

If your files are on a cloud system, then the cloud may notice that they're all being replaced by encrypted versions for you, or even that the patterns of access has changed in a way that's led to problems for other customers. This might be ransomware encrypting them, it might be someone (an employee or someone who's taken over an employee account) copying them. Ransomware is not the problem: The problems include the challenge of determining what a problematic pattern is, how to detect them across many enterprises, and how hard it is to respond. These tie to how we assemble components into useful and resilient systems.

Ransomware is not the problem; operating systems that give unrestricted access to applications were a more elegant design for a simpler time. There are other improvements that system designers can make that prevent both ransomware and bulk exfiltration.

For example, in macOS Big Sur, applications can only write to a few specific directories by default, and reading or writing to either the Documents folder or other places is restricted. MacOS, like Windows, has transparently moved the file dialog into the operating system so that it knows that a human is selecting files. The kernel tracks (and the activity monitor shows) how many bytes each application is sending or receiving. It would be easy (and perhaps annoying) to alert on unusual patterns.

Flexibility has enabled incredible innovation in very short times. The ability to assemble components into useful agglomerations makes those innovations cheap. We assemble components at all sorts of scales: OEMs make PCs from a diverse array of parts from different suppliers. Software makers build "solutions" from a mix of open source and commercial code. Some of that runs on operating systems like Linux, whose distros are mixes of open source packages and glue configuration; and those distros are combined into container images, similarly mixed. Our ability to combine these in varied ways contributes to innovation.

When we want to secure that, we often want to call on tools like isolation. We want to isolate packages and system users from each other (violated by Spectre- and Meltdown-style attacks), we want to isolate systems from each other. Isolation is a security and reliability tool, enabled by opacity. Opacity means that software can't reach across the boundary and arbitrarily change things on the other side. That is, "No user serviceable parts inside." That opacity may mean that Excel can't run Macros, or PowerPoint can't run arbitrary Actions. It may limit how "hook" extension points can be configured. It certainly adds to administrative load while improving security.

We need ways to construct, combine, operate, and observe software at new scales and in new ways. Worrying about ransomware distracts us from these challenges; solving them will solve ransomware in ways that enable more innovation and value creation.

Adam is a leading expert on threat modeling. He's a member of the BlackHat Review Board, and helped create the CVE and many other things. He currently helps many organizations improve their security via Shostack & Associates, and helps startups become great businesses as an ... View Full Bio
1 of 2
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Author
6/10/2021 | 6:12:37 PM
Ransomware is the problem - and there are lots of solutions
Ransomeware certainly is A problem and there are lots of ways to help prevent and mitigate the impact, the commentary has several good examples, especially highlighting Zero Trust, least privilege, and preventing the escalation of privilege with effective access controls.  
I Smell a RAT! New Cybersecurity Threats for the Crypto Industry
David Trepp, Partner, IT Assurance with accounting and advisory firm BPM LLP,  7/9/2021
Attacks on Kaseya Servers Led to Ransomware in Less Than 2 Hours
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  7/7/2021
It's in the Game (but It Shouldn't Be)
Tal Memran, Cybersecurity Expert, CYE,  7/9/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
The Promise and Reality of Cloud Security
Cloud security has been part of the cybersecurity conversation for years but has been on the sidelines for most enterprises. The shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic and digital transformation projects have moved cloud infrastructure front-and-center as enterprises address the associated security risks. This report - a compilation of cutting-edge Black Hat research, in-depth Omdia analysis, and comprehensive Dark Reading reporting - explores how cloud security is rapidly evolving.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2023-02-08
Open Redirect in GitHub repository btcpayserver/btcpayserver prior to 1.7.6.
PUBLISHED: 2023-02-08
Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) vulnerability in SeoSamba for WordPress Webmasters plugin <= 1.0.5 versions.
PUBLISHED: 2023-02-08
Cross-site Scripting (XSS) - Stored in GitHub repository btcpayserver/btcpayserver prior to 1.7.6.
PUBLISHED: 2023-02-08
Lack of verification in B&R APROL Tbase server versions < R 4.2-07 may lead to memory leaks when receiving messages
PUBLISHED: 2023-02-08
Insufficient check of preconditions could lead to Denial of Service conditions when calling commands on the Tbase server of B&R APROL versions < R 4.2-07.