Ransomware is the most significant cybersecurity threat facing organizations today. But recently, leaders from the National Security Agency and the FBI both indicated that attacks declined during the first half of 2022. The combination of sanctions on Russia, where many cybercriminal gangs originate, and crashing cryptocurrency markets may have had an effect, making it difficult for ransomware gangs to extract funds and get their payouts.
But we aren't out of the woods yet. Despite a temporary dip, ransomware is not only thriving but also evolving. Today, ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) has evolved from a commoditized, automated model relying on prepackaged exploit kits, to a human-operated, highly targeted, and sophisticated business operation. That's reason for businesses of any size to be concerned.
It is widely known that today's cybercriminals are well equipped, highly motivated, and very effective. They didn't get that way by accident, and they haven't remained so effective without continuously evolving their technologies and methodologies. The motivation of massive financial gain has been the only constant.
Early ransomware attacks were simple, technology-driven attacks. The attacks drove increased focus on backup and restore capabilities, which led adversaries to seek out online backups and encrypt those, too, during an attack. Attacker success led to larger ransoms, and the larger ransom demands made it less likely that the victim would pay, and more likely that law enforcement would get involved. Ransomware gangs responded with extortion. They transitioned to not only encrypting data, but exfiltration and threatening to make public the often-sensitive data of the victim's customers or partners, introducing a more complex risk of brand and reputational damage. Today, it isn't unusual for ransomware attackers to seek out a victim's cyber-insurance policy to help set the ransom demand and make the whole process (including payment) as efficient as possible.
We have also seen less disciplined (but equally damaging) ransomware attacks. For example, choosing to pay a ransom in turn also identifies a victim as a reliable fit for a future attack, increasing the likelihood it will be hit again, by the same or a different ransomware gang. Research estimates between 50% to 80% (PDF) of organizations that paid a ransom suffered a repeat attack.
As ransomware attacks have evolved, so have security technologies, especially in areas of threat identification and blocking. Anti-phishing, spam filters, antivirus, and malware-detection technologies have all been fine-tuned to address modern threats to minimize the threat of a compromise through email, malicious websites, or other popular attack vectors.
This proverbial "cat and mouse" game between adversaries and security providers that deliver better defenses and sophisticated approaches to stopping ransomware attacks has led to more collaboration within global cybercriminal rings. Much like safecrackers and alarm specialists used in traditional robberies, experts in malware development, network access, and exploitation are powering today's attacks and created conditions for the next evolution in ransomware.
The RaaS Model Today
RaaS has evolved to become a sophisticated, human-led operation with a complex, profit sharing business model. A RaaS operator who may have worked independently in the past now contracts with specialists to increase chances of a success.
A RaaS operator — who maintains specific ransomware tools, communicates with the victim, and secures payments — will now often work alongside a high-level hacker, who will perform the intrusion itself. Having an interactive attacker inside the target environment enables live decision-making during the attack. Working together, they identify specific weaknesses within the network, escalate privileges, and encrypt the most sensitive data to ensure payouts. In addition, they carry out reconnaissance to find and delete online backups and disable security tooling. The contracted hacker will often work alongside an access broker, who is responsible for providing access to the network through stolen credentials or persistence mechanisms that are already in place.
The attacks resulting from this collaboration of expertise have the feel and appearance of "old-fashioned," state-sponsored advanced persistent threat-style attacks, but are much more prevalent.
How Organizations Can Defend Themselves
The new, human operated RaaS model is much more sophisticated, targeted, and destructive than the RaaS models of the past, but there are still best practices organizations can follow to defend themselves.
Organizations must be disciplined about their security hygiene. IT is always changing, and any time a new endpoint is added, or a system is updated, it has the potential to introduce a new vulnerability or risk. Security teams must remain focused on security best practices: patching, using multifactor authentication, enforcing strong credentials, scanning the Dark Web for compromised credentials, training employees on how to spot phishing attempts, and more. These best practices help reduce the attack surface and minimize the risk that an access broker will be able to exploit a vulnerability to gain entry. Additionally, the stronger security hygiene an organization has, the less "noise" there will be for analysts to sort through in the security operations center (SOC), enabling them to focus on the real threat when one is identified.
Beyond security best practices, organizations must also ensure they have advanced threat detection and response capabilities. Because access brokers spend time performing reconnaissance in the organization's infrastructure, security analysts have an opportunity to spot them and stop the attack in its early stages — but only if they have the right tools. Organizations should look to extended detection and response solutions that can detect and cross-correlate telemetry from security events across their endpoints, networks, servers, email and cloud systems, and applications. They also need the ability to respond wherever the attack is identified to shut it down quickly. Large enterprises may have these capabilities built into their SOC, whereas midsize organizations may want to consider the managed detection and response model for 24/7 threat monitoring and response.
Despite the recent decline in ransomware attacks, security professionals shouldn't expect the threat to go extinct anytime soon. RaaS will continue to evolve, with the latest adaptations replaced by new approaches in response to cybersecurity innovations. But with a focus on security best practices paired with key threat prevention, detection, and response technologies, organizations will become more resilient against attacks.