How We Enabled Ransomware to Become a Multibillion-Dollar Industry

As an industry, we must move beyond one-dimensional approaches to assessing ransomware exposures. Asking these four questions will help.

Srinivas Mukkamala, Chief Product Officer, Ivanti

February 27, 2020

4 Min Read

Ransomware has been around for more than 15 years, yet it continues to be the most pervasive cyberthreat facing businesses. According to reports, in 2019 alone more than 966 government agencies, educational establishments, and businesses in the US were hit by ransomware attacks, at a potential cost exceeding $7.5 billion. And, unfortunately, when organizations choose to pay a ransom, they are adding fuel to the fire by supporting this global criminal industry.

The US is home to the world's leading technology companies, so why haven't we solved the ransomware problem by now? The answer is simple: We underestimated the challenge of finding and fixing software vulnerabilities used by ransomware. In the process, we created the perfect environment for a pandemic to take hold and thrive.

For the vast majority of organizations, both large and small, locking the windows and doors used by ransomware in their corporate networks is beyond their capabilities. But it's not for lack of trying.

Most companies routinely perform unauthenticated scans of devices on their IT network looking for vulnerabilities. But unauthenticated scans do not detect as many vulnerabilities as security scans performed as a logged-in (authenticated) user. Of the vulnerabilities they find, companies typically strive to fix the ones ranked as critical or high in severity, primarily to reduce the number of fixes, or patches, that need to be applied. Fixing "every" security vulnerability is beyond the reach of even the largest and best-resourced companies in the world.

However, due to the complexity of the average corporate network, this approach creates a never-ending treadmill where companies are never able to successfully patch all of the critical and high-severity vulnerabilities before new ones are discovered.

Even eliminating all high-severity vulnerabilities doesn't solve the problem because it means a large percentage of others (low and medium risk) are never evaluated for their potential to expose the company to a ransomware attack. For example, the high-severity selection criteria ignores the business criticality of affected devices. Are they running the company's financial systems? Or are they reachable from the Internet?

In addition, the traditional high-severity ranking approach doesn't take into account whether a particular vulnerability is being actively used by ransomware. Without a more comprehensive assessment of security vulnerabilities, it's virtually impossible for companies to know how at risk they really are because of ransomware, and whether they are making forward progress against reducing their risk.

To get the best possible assessment of an organization's risk of being victimized by ransomware, an authenticated scan — which determines how secure a network is from an inside (authenticated user's) vantage point — is needed. While unauthenticated scans can probe a system and deliver a surprising amount of detail, they don't see everything. For example, they will find a good number of vulnerabilities but may have to flag them as potential threats, since they lack the visibility to provide 100% certainty. With ransomware now targeting the application layer, it's crucial that authenticated scans are used to validate whether a patch management program is doing its job and gather data needed to improve processes going forward.

Penetration testing is another important tool in the fight against ransomware and should be performed periodically. Beyond ransomware and other threats, this type of testing offers the important benefit of validating that your controls are working properly. However, like compliance assessments, a single penetration test provides only a point-in-time view of a company's security posture. Continuous penetration testing is the proper approach.

As an industry, we must move beyond one-dimensional approaches to assessing ransomware exposures. Meanwhile, business leaders and boards should be asking for specifics pertaining to an organization's security posture and exposure to ransomware attacks.

For example:

  • What is our organization's risk of being compromised by a ransomware attack?

  • How do we measure our exposure to being victimized by ransomware?

  • What steps are we taking to proactively lower our risk to ransomware attacks?

  • How are we monitoring our progress toward lowering ransomware risk on an ongoing basis?

This line of inquiry will enable the C-suite to assess whether the organization is being reactive or proactive toward the ransomware threat and help understand whether additional investments are required to reduce the company's attack surface.

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About the Author(s)

Srinivas Mukkamala

Chief Product Officer, Ivanti

Dr. Srinivas Mukkamala is Chief Product Officer at Ivanti. Prior to Ivanti, he was a co-founder and CEO of RiskSense, a risk-based vulnerability management company. Srinivas is a recognized expert on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI), one of the early researchers to introduce support vector machines for intrusion detection and exploit labeling.

He was part of a think tank that collaborated with the US Department of Defense and US Intelligence Community on applying these concepts to cybersecurity problems. Dr. Mukkamala was also a lead researcher for CACTUS (Computational Analysis of Cyber Terrorism against the US) and holds a patent on Intelligent Agents for Distributed Intrusion Detection System and Method of Practicing.

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