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To Pay or Not to Pay: Responding to Ransomware From a Lawyer's Perspective

The threat of data extortion adds new layers of risk when determining how to respond to a ransomware attack.

Beth Burgin Waller

November 17, 2020

3 Min Read

Ransomware has grown an additional gnarly tentacle: data extortion. It was gruesome enough with threat actors encrypting data in place but has morphed and added data extortion to the mix. Cases are emerging with a two-part payload of data encryption and data extraction, where data is encrypted in place while a small portion of unknown data is ferried offline under the threat of publication. (Or, in the case of cybercriminal organizations such as the now defunct Maze group, actual publication of a portion of the data — with threats to publish more on the way.)

In previous ransomware scenarios, an organization just had to decide whether to pay a ransom to get the key to unencrypt the data. But now it must consider making what is essentially a "forever promise" with a criminal organization. The threat actors are demanding payment in exchange for alleged proof that they deleted the data. In practice, they are saying "trust us" to delete data that they previously threatened to publish. It's not a great situation to find yourself in.

Having lived through this several times with my clients, I have learned some immediate tactical considerations any organization must keep in mind before deciding how to respond to a ransomware attack.

1. Negotiate? If so, should you do it yourself or use a professional negotiation company? Even when you have logging in place, it may be impossible to discern exactly what the threat actor removed from the network. Even if the threat actor claims they took only a small portion of data, they often leave you guessing about what else they may have in their possession. Therefore, you're racing to determine what information may be dumped into the Dark Web. So, do you negotiate? This may be wise — even if you don't plan to pay — so that you can buy time to determine more about what information may have been lost. The decision to hire an outside negotiation company is really an incident-by-incident decision. Often, skipping the extra cost can be the best bet but it can be very circumstance specific. Work with your legal team on strategy before engaging an outside negotiation company.

2. Deleting the data doesn't alleviate your legal risks. Even if the threat actor deletes the data they exfiltrated from your network, this does not alleviate your legal responsibilities or risks. Generally, the law will look at whether the data was both "accessed and acquired" or, in the case of other statutes, accessed with some proof of misuse. Given that a threat actor has taken the data, there is no way to dodge the "acquired" component of the law. You are legally required to notify any individual whose information was taken — even if the threat actor deletes the data.

3. Will you pay? Or pay and face a sanction? The US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control issued an advisory opinion on Oct. 1, noting that there are risks of sanctions associated with certain ransomware payments because ransoms often fund criminal activities. So, if you are considering making a ransom payment, analyze the issue thoroughly with counsel to make certain you do not jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Cyber data-extortion incidents are wicked. And because they are fraught with liability, it's best to work through these issues with your lawyer to cloak your investigation and actions with attorney-client privilege while navigating the legal risks associated with the extortion.

About the Author(s)

Beth Burgin Waller

Chair, Cybersecurity & Data Privacy Practice, Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black

As chair of the Cybersecurity & Data Privacy practice at Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black (WRVB), Beth's practice is fully devoted to cybersecurity and data privacy. Clients ranging from local government and state agencies to mid-market firms and Fortune 200 companies depend on Beth for advice and counsel. Beth's credentials in the field are extensive. She is a certified Privacy Law Specialist by the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), which is accredited by the American Bar Association. In addition, she is a Certified Information Privacy Professional with expertise in both US and European law (CIPP/US & CIPP/E) and a Certified Information Privacy Manager (CIPM), also from the IAPP. In 2022, the governor of Virginia appointed Beth to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first Cybersecurity Planning Committee, a committee tasked with increasing the cybersecurity posture of public bodies and local governments in Virginia.

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