Cloud Backup: How It Can Protect Against Ransomware

For enterprises anxious to avoid being extorted by attackers using ransomware, backing up data to the cloud is an option to consider, though it's not the answer for everyone.

Jeffrey Burt, Editor & Journalist

December 20, 2018

6 Min Read

The intense public focus on ransomware in 2017 -- due in large part to the WannaCray attacks -- may have abated to some extent during 2018 with the rise of new dangers like cryptomining campaigns, but that doesn't mean the threat of the malware or the damage it does has lessened.

The FBI reports that ransomware attacks in 2017 cost US consumers more than $1.4 billion, and Verizon Enterprise officials in the company's 2018 Data Breach Investigations Report noted that ransomware continues to be an ongoing and evolving threat. The city of Atlanta can attest to that. City officials spent at least $2.6 million in March and April to repair damage caused by a ransomware attack. Baltimore's 911 emergency system sustained a similar attack soon after. (See Iranian Hackers Charged With Creating SamSam Ransomware.)

(Source: iStock)

(Source: iStock)

With that as the backdrop, enterprises have myriad decisions to make about how to defend themselves against ransomware. Among the questions to address is whether cloud backup and recovery are the right solutions for them. Data is coin of the realm, threat actors want to get ahold of it, encrypt it and then hold it for ransom. Organizations want a reliable and secure way to back it up so if a ransomware attack hits, the data can be safely restored without having to pay the extortion demand.

Backing up to the cloud is an option, and one that is gaining momentum.

Backup growth in the cloud age
The global cloud backup market is expected to grow 26.1% a year for the next few years, from $1.3 billion in 2017 to $4.13 billion by 2022, according to a report from MarketsandMarkets.

There are other options, including backing up to USB drives, network share or a backup server. There are risks with these, particularly with cybercriminals developing malware that also will compromise and encrypt data on backup files. Ransomware also can use servers as their gateway into a company's network, as illustrated by the WannaCry virus, which exploited vulnerable Windows servers. (See WannaCry Continues Rampage 18 Months After First Outbreak.)

Given that, public clouds like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform and others are an attractive alternative for many reasons. The backup is remote and managed by the cloud provider, which means enterprises don't have to buy hard drives or USB sticks or manage complicated backup software, Sanjay Kaira, co-founder and chief product officer with cloud security tool vendor Lacework, told Security Now in an email.

There also is less hassle: Once the cloud backup processes are set, they run in the background.

There are other advantages, according to Brad Bussie, managing principal of security strategy at IT products and services provider Trace3. Most cloud backup solutions have versioning capabilities that ease the rollback of ransomware-encrypted files to pre-encrypted versions, many include data protection that looks for ransomware activity and automatically shuts it down, and many aren't linked to user profiles or show up as another drive or shared folder, protecting them against malware that also targets backup files.

"Ransomware, like all cyber attacks, constantly evolves to take advantage of vulnerabilities," Kaira said. "It's no surprise that attackers are working to compromise the backups that take the teeth out of their attacks. That doesn't have to be a big threat, but you'll have to do some careful planning to make sure you've closed off any opportunities for attackers to access your backup data sets… The cloud is probably the best option for most people. In some cases, a hybrid approach may create the best blend of off-site managed backup storage and on-site immediate availability."

More security
The cloud may not be right for every business, according to Brian Wells, CTO at Merlin International, a cybersecurity solutions provider. Much depends on the type and size of the data being backed up. User files stored on mobile devices, laptops, desktops and network file shares are ideal for cloud backup because the backup provider is not directly connected to the organization's network, the data is available from any device with appropriate credentials (which shouldn't match the corporate network credentials for another layer of security), and the raw data can be encrypted by the cloud provider, making a ransomware attack more difficult.

"Corporate databases (EMR, ERP, data warehouses, etc.) are more difficult to back up to the cloud because of their size and frequency of change," Wells told Security Now in an email. "They would also be difficult to quickly restore in case of a ransomware attack on the primary database. These large files should be backed up locally to disk systems that are firewalled off from user access or to tapes that are kept in physically separate locations."

If an enterprise does decide to take the cloud backup and recovery route, there are certain features and capabilities they must look for from a cloud provider, Wells said:

  • Encryption of raw data to protect from director access, such as bypassing access using the backup/restore application

  • Use of data loss prevention (DLP) and other security tools to detect unauthorized access and modification

  • Offer bulk access to backup data using encrypted USB drives that can be shipped to the customer if they lose access through the backup/restore application

  • Good reputation -- in business for years, no major outages, large, insured and compliant with industry regulations, including HIPAA, GDPR, SOX and FISMA

  • Guarantee that data will not leave certain geographic boundaries if required by the customer

Brajesh Goyal, vice president of engineering at Cavirin Systems, which offers security risk and compliance solutions for hybrid cloud environments, using the cloud for backup and recovery requires shared responsibility between the enterprise and the cloud provider. The cloud providers can bring greater expertise, reach, redundancy and service definitions, and will usually will have an "inside-the-firewall connect" to the enterprise's on-premises resources, "so the use of cloud B&R still implies the need for a 'virtual' airgap to prevent corruption from ransomware," Goyal told Security Now in an email.

"The organization should also leverage monitoring and continuous assessments against the various CIS benchmarks to protect their CyberPosture," he said.

In the end, "the best protection against ransomware is preventing the infection in the first place," Trace3's Bussie said. "Organizations need to double down on protecting common entry points that ransomware often uses like websites and email. Ransomware is unable to do any damage if it is detonated in a secure environment before it gets to the user's endpoint. Isolation technology continues to be the best defense against ransomware. If ransomware does get through, having a good, up-to-date backup is essential. A good cloud-based backup and recovery solution will offer forms of data protection to quickly identify and stop ransomware before it causes damage."

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— Jeffrey Burt is a long-time tech journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as eWEEK, The Next Platform and Channelnomics.

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