Ransomware Surveys Fill In Scope, Scale of Extortion Epidemic

Half of all surveyed organizations have been hit with ransomware campaigns in the last year, many more than once

3 Min Read

Some 50% of organizations have been hit with a ransomware infection in the last year, and of those, 85% have suffered from three or more attacks, according to a user survey conducted by security vendor SentinelOne.

As a result, 70% of respondents report an increase IT security spending, and 65% have changed their security strategies to focus on mitigation. More than half — 52% —  say they've lost faith in their antivirus protection.

"It’s not surprising to see high levels of apathy towards traditional antivirus software, and we don't expect the ransomware epidemic to slow down anytime soon," says Jeremiah Grossman, chief of security strategy for SentinelOne, in a statement. "The situation is likely to get far worse, as some of the ill-gotten gains will be invested into research and development designed to improve encryption strength and utilize new delivery methods, as witnessed with Locky.”

Tis the season for vendors' ransomware surveys. PhishMe reports this week that developers of Locky ransomware have shown "creativity, agility, and adaptability" in their repeated improvements to the malware, frustrating the efforts of analysts, researchers and infosec professionals to prevent or mitigate attacks. And Cato Networks says that 73% of CIOs view defending against ransomware and other emerging threats as their top priority for 2017.

While few security pros would deny that ransomware is a growing problem, the trio of vendor reports begins to put the scope and scale of this malware epidemic into sharper contrast.

"Infosec professionals need to understand that ransomware leverages the current malware infrastructure, it's extremely easy to create, and it scales very well. It's also very lucrative for the bad guys," Grossman tells Dark Reading in a phone interview. Left unaddressed, the proliferation of ransomware threatens to mirror that of spam. "We have an opportunity now, but if we wait too long, ransomware's going to be everywhere," he adds.

Grossman also distinguishes between two kinds of ransomware attacks: indiscriminate and targeted. With indiscriminate campaigns, the bad guys know nothing about the content or value of the data they're encrypting. In a targeted attack, bad actors will go after a healthcare organization, for example, because it's literally life and death and widely assumed that they'll pay. "A couple weeks ago, a company was targeted and four hospitals had to reschedule patient operations while they dealt with ransomware infection," Grossman explains.

SentinelOne surveyed 500 "cybersecurity decision makers" at organizations with more than 1,000 employees in October 2016, including 200 people in the US, and 100 each in the UK, France, and Germany.

What can organizations do to protect themselves against this kind of extortion? One obvious preventive measure is performing regular data backups, so if an organization's servers or desktops get hit with a ransomware attack, they'll have unencrypted copies in reserve that allow them to carry on with business as usual. "One thing ransomware has done is inadvertently exposed the lack of backup data" on the part of end-users, Grossman explains.

It really comes down to patching, especially since browsers are getting hit with drive-bys; another protection is to monitor inbound attachments on email and to disable macros. "Should malware get into the system and start to execute, there's technology available that detects bad apps at runtime," Grossman recommends.

SentinelOne's survey highlighted other issues for companies hit with ransomware:

  • Company data most often affected by ransomware campaigns was financial data (52%), employee information (46%) and customer information (37%);

  • 68% of respondents agreed that traditional security techniques can't protect organizations from the next generation of malware;

  • Most companies still assume responsibility for data breaches and ransomware attacks; only 42% say they would demand answers from their IT security vendors.

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About the Author(s)

Terry Sweeney, Contributing Editor

Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered technology, networking, and security for more than 20 years. He was part of the team that started Dark Reading and has been a contributor to The Washington Post, Crain's New York Business, Red Herring, Network World, InformationWeek and Mobile Sports Report.

In addition to information security, Sweeney has written extensively about cloud computing, wireless technologies, storage networking, and analytics. After watching successive waves of technological advancement, he still prefers to chronicle the actual application of these breakthroughs by businesses and public sector organizations.

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