Internet

EXPLAINER: Why ransomware is so dangerous and hard to stop

Recent high-profile “ransomware” attacks on the world’s largest meat-packing company and the most extensive U.S. fuel pipeline have underscored how gangs of extortionist hackers can disrupt the economy and put lives and livelihoods at risk. Last year alone in the U.S., ransomware gangs hit more than 100 federal, state, and municipal agencies, upwards of 500 health care centers, 1,680 educational institutions, and untold thousands of businesses, according to Emsisoft. Dollar losses are in the tens of billions. Accurate numbers are elusive. Many victims shun reporting, fearing the reputational blight.

More recent known targets include a Massachusetts ferry operator, the Irish health system, and the Washington, D.C., police department. But the broadly disruptive hacks on Colonial Pipeline in the U.S. in May and Brazilian meat processor JBS SA this week have drawn close attention from the White House and other world leaders, along with heightened scrutiny of the foreign safe havens where cybercriminal mafias operate.

WHAT IS RANSOMWARE? HOW DOES IT WORK?

Ransomware scrambles the target organization’s data with encryption. The criminals leave instructions on infected computers for negotiating ransom payments. Once paid, they provide decryption keys for unlocking those files. Ransomware crooks have also expanded into data-theft blackmail. Before triggering encryption, they quietly copy sensitive files and threaten to post them publicly unless they get their ransom payments. That can present problems even for companies that diligently back up their networks as a hedge against ransomware since refusing to pay can incur costs far greater than the ransoms they might have negotiated.

HOW DO RANSOMWARE GANGS OPERATE?

Some top ransomware criminals fancy themselves software service, professionals. They take pride in their “customer service,” providing “help desks” that assist paying victims in file decryption. And they tend to keep their word. They have brands to protect, after all. The business is now highly specialized. An affiliate will identify, map out and infect targets using ransomware typically “rented” from a ransomware-as-a-service provider. The provider gets a cut of the payout; the affiliate generally takes more than three-quarters.

Other subcontractors may also get a slice. Those can include the authors of the malware used to break into victim networks and the people running so-called “bulletproof domains” behind which the ransomware gangs hide their “command-and-control” servers. Those servers manage the remote sowing of malware and data extraction ahead of activation, a stealthy process that can take weeks.

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