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Manchester United Cyberattack Highlights Controversy in Paying Ransomware Attackers

The Premier League English football (soccer) club team is reportedly being held to ransom by cyberattackers. Manchester United may face a difficult decision: whether to pay a ransom for release of its stolen data.

Manchester United, an English Premier League stalwart and a football club with a huge worldwide fanbase, has been targeted by a cyberattack. Now, Man U may be facing a no-win scenario.

Reports suggest a ransomware attack, launched Nov. 20, 2020, is believed to involve the compromise of personally identifiable information (PII) and/or mission-critical information assets. These mission-critical assets, as yet unconfirmed, could be anything from business plans to highly competitive player transfer targets.

The club has claimed that customer information is not believed to be at risk in the attack.

Man U is one of the most popular and most profitable soccer clubs in the world, and the Red Devils are likely caught between a rock and a hard place. Should they pay the ransom, or should they sit tight? The decision is anything but simple, and both choices likely come with consequences.

Ransomware attacks have been around for decades, growing increasingly common in recent years. They have been especially prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many organizations failed to adequately secure data and systems when remote working became the universal norm earlier in 2020.

There has been little confirmed information about what exactly happened in the Manchester United incident and how the attackers gained access, as the organization has remained tight-lipped about the attack. The club described the attack as both "sophisticated" and "disruptive," though many compromised entities often describe incidents as such when, in truth, they are anything but sophisticated.

"Following the recent cyber attack on the club, our IT team and external experts secured our networks and have conducted forensic investigations," the team said in a statement. Manchester United likely attempted to secure its networks prior to the attack, but the attackers still found a way in.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is helping the club in its response to the attack. However, other than the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) being informed, little is known about what data might have been compromised.

If PII has been compromised, then Manchester United is likely to face a fine (eventually) from the ICO, which under the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR) could be up to 4% of its annual global revenue or about £18 million, whichever is greater. The pandemic has affected the club's financial results, and its guidance on turnover for 2019-20 was for a revenue range equivalent to $730 million to $750 million. Undoubtedly 4% of this would be a significant number.

Further financial penalties could come from the U.S. government, as Manchester United is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued an advisory on Oct. 1, 2020, highlighting "the sanctions risks associated with ransomware payments related to malicious cyber-enabled activities." The advisory goes on to state that "companies that facilitate ransomware payments… not only encourage future ransomware payment demands but also may risk violating OFAC regulations."

For Man U, again, the fine could be significant, with a figure estimated to be about $20 million.

Paying ransomware is not illegal in the UK, but is generally counselled against by Her Majesty’s Government (HMG). Doing so would surely add to the public embarrassment the team already faces.

Should the team choose not to pay the ransom, it may endure a longer, more difficult path to restore its business operations. More than two weeks after the attack, it has reportedly yet to restore full access to its systems, including its email. It may also have to recreate or rebuild valuable data assets.

Another risk of not paying is data extortion. According to Omdia research, should victims fail to pay the ransom, attackers increasingly threaten to release the victim's sensitive data publicly, which would cause even more harm. While paying the ransom may seem untenable, the exposure of the team's inner workings to the world may be even worse.

Undoubtedly the club is in an awful predicament. It will be very interesting to watch events unfold in Manchester.

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