Key Takeaways:

Ransomware is designed to prevent access to your data and computer systems. Ensure your organization is better prepared for a ransomware infection by:

  • conducting regular cybersecurity risk analyses that incorporate the risks presented by malware and ransomware;
  • implementing and regularly testing incident response and business continuity plans to ensure a rapid and organized response to cybersecurity incidents;
  • backing-up critical data regularly and conducting periodic test restorations to minimize downtime in the event of an incident;
  • training personnel to avoid, recognize, and promptly report suspicious emails or system activity;
  • reviewing vendors’ security programs and including contractual security requirements and liability allocations in relevant agreements; and
  • considering cyber-insurance policies that include cyber-extortion coverage.

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) kicked off its fall technology series with a workshop on the growing threat of ransomware. Ransomware is an increasingly common and insidious form of malware that locks away data, holding it hostage in an attempt to extort money from system owners.

According to some experts, ransomware is the most profitable form of malware in history. While not a new phenomenon, the threat presented by ransomware has reached epidemic status in 2016:

  • 54 percent of 540 businesses surveyed were attacked by ransomware in the past 12 months, with health care and financial services the most common targets.[1] Banks have begun to prepare for ransomware infection by stocking tens of thousands of dollars in Bitcoin so that they can pay a ransom if necessary.[2]
  • The FBI reported that an average of more than 4,000 ransomware attacks were recorded each day in 2016, up from approximately 1,000 ransomware attacks each day in 2015.[3]
  • One survey showed that 72 percent of companies could not access their data for at least two days after a ransomware infection and 32 percent were locked out for five or more days, resulting in significant losses due to downtime.[4]
  • Many organizations, including hospitals[6] and police departments,[7] have paid significant sums to hackers to unlock encrypted data,[8] with an estimated $375 million in ransoms paid out so far this year.[9]
  • Paying a ransom does not guarantee data recovery.[10] One cybersecurity firm found that 7 percent of businesses who paid a ransom did not have their data restored.[11]

Given the increasing prevalence and sophistication of a ransomware attacks, organizations should take steps now to reduce the risk of infection and minimize the impact of an attack. Basic steps include: 1) incorporating the risks of ransomware and other malware into the organization's security risk analysis and risk management program; 2) implementing technical, access, and other procedures to guard against, detect, and limit the effects of malware, including ransomware; 3) training personnel on how to recognize, avoid, and report cybersecurity threats; and 4) maintaining and regularly testing the effectiveness of the organization's data incident response and business continuity programs, including the scope and frequency of data backup and recovery processes.

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a devastating form of malware that encrypts or otherwise "locks up" computer systems and data, preventing use or access. After data is encrypted, ransomware typically informs the user of the infection and threatens to delete the commandeered data if a monetary ransom is not paid within a short time. Particularly dangerous strains of ransomware transfer copies of encrypted data back to the deploying hacker, while others pretend to be ransomware but destroy data outright rather than encrypting it.[12]

Ransomware typically enters a system due to an end-user clicking a link in an email, visiting an infected website, or opening an infected email attachment.[13] However, emerging strains of ransomware can also spread without user interaction through server or software vulnerabilities or be distributed automatically by malvertising.[14] Once inside a system, ransomware will often attempt to spread to other connected systems, making early detection and response critical to preventing a widespread infection.

The Consequences of a Ransomware Infection

Ransomware presents three primary areas of risk to organizations:

  • System Downtime. Ransomware infections can render entire systems and networks unusable. Most infected organizations suffer two or more days of system downtime that can cause disruption and significant operational losses.[15]
  • Data Loss. An infection can result in temporary or permanent loss of data.[16] While the risks associated with such losses vary depending on the details of the organization and the affected data, the consequences can range from mild to severe harm to the organization and its affected customers or clients.
  • Legal and Regulatory Exposure. Because ransomware can access, destroy, alter, and even transfer data to third parties, an infection can trigger security incident or data breach reporting requirements. Affected organizations may also face lawsuits and enforcement actions under privacy, data breach notification, and data protection laws.[17]

The harms associated with a ransomware infection can be significant. Victims of ransomware reported that the attacks cost them $209 million in just the first quarter of 2016.[18] As these numbers only reflect the fraction of ransomware attacks actually reported to the FBI, losses for that period are likely much larger.

How to Prepare for Ransomware Threats

Prevention and preparation are critical when it comes to ransomware protection. Organizations can reduce the risk of ransomware infection and mitigate its effects by taking several basic steps now, such as:

  • Risk Analysis. Conducting regular risk analyses to identify vulnerabilities and threats to critical information is an integral part of any information security program. The risks associated with malware and ransomware should be incorporated into the organization's risk analyses.
  • Incident Response and Business Continuity Planning. A swift, organized response to a ransomware infection is critical in limiting or mitigating associated harms. Having an "actionable" data incident response and business continuity plan in place, as well as a crisis communications plan, can significantly improve an organization's response to a ransomware attack. Regularly testing these plans through table top and other exercises is the key to making them actionable. A ransomware attack is a great topic for a table top exercise.
  • Regular Backups. Ransomware's defining characteristic is denying access to data. Maintaining regular segregated backups can minimize disruption to operations in the event critical files are encrypted or deleted. Some variants of ransomware can remove or disrupt linked or live backups, so organizations should at least consider maintaining fully-segregated and/or offline backups of critical or protected data. By testing their data backup and recovery processes in advance of an attack, organizations can identify unexpected limitations in the frequency or effectiveness of these systems and take steps to shore these up in advance.
  • Workforce Training. Employee errors are the most common infection vectors for most malware. Employees are also in a position to provide early warning of ransomware infections. As a result, employees and other workforce members should be trained and encouraged to identify, avoid, and promptly report not only suspicious emails, but suspicious computer activity in general. For example, organizations can send "test" emails to periodically assess their employees' ability to identify and properly report "phishing" campaigns and other attack vectors.
  • Technical Safeguards. Technical safeguards, such as anti-malware programs, can be used to block suspicious emails and attachments before they are opened. Disabling macros in email attachments may prevent an incident in the event an infected document is opened. Limiting installation permissions, implementing software restriction policies and whitelists, and ensuring software and firmware are regularly updated with security patches can help prevent malware from installing itself on systems. Protecting, monitoring, and reviewing access logs for Internet-accessible devices can detect suspicious activity, such as data exfiltration attempts. Finally, organizations should implement mobile device management practices and software to address the risk of infection or data loss through employee mobile devices, such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops.
  • Access Controls. Ransomware typically only has access to the files, permissions, and resources of the particular compromised user account. All organizations should implement access controls using the principle of "least privilege" to limit access to data so that user accounts are only able to access information and network resources necessary to carry out their duties, and so that not every compromised user infects the whole system. Additionally, firewalls, password protections, and other measures should be used to limit access to critical information and systems. These measures reduce the likelihood that an infection will reach sensitive data or spread throughout a network.
  • Vendor Management. Vendors that have access to an organization's networks, systems, or data can introduce malware and ransomware just like any other user. Organizations should review vendors' security and compliance practices prior to engagement and periodically thereafter, and should ensure that vendor contractual obligations include security standards, incident notification requirements, and appropriate allocations of liability in the event of a breach or other security incident.
  • Insurance. Some cyber-insurance policies now offer cyber-extortion and similar coverage that may apply to these types of incidents. Organizations should consider reviewing coverage options with their insurance provider or broker.

Note that these measures form only the foundation of a data security program. Organizations may be subject to other sector-specific legal or contractual security requirements and should take additional steps as necessary to protect themselves and their data based on their own operations and related risk profile.

Health Care as a Case Study

Nowhere are the dangers presented by ransomware more evident than in the health care industry, which has become an increasingly common target for ransomware attacks. Ransomware disruptions to health care systems can have particularly severe and even life-threatening consequences, increasing the chance that affected organizations will pay a ransom.

  • Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles paid hackers $17,000 in Bitcoins after Locky, a ransomware variant, took its computers offline for more than a week in February.[19]
  • Methodist Hospital in Henderson, Kentucky was also struck by Locky in March, although it was able to bring its systems back online within a few days by restoring from backups.[20]
  • When ransomware took down MedStar's systems in March, it delayed lab results, interfered with treatments, and prevented access to electronic medical records in ten hospitals and more than 250 outpatient centers in Maryland and the Washington, DC area.[21]
  • Kansas Heart Hospital was attacked in March and elected to pay a ransom. The hackers, however, only unlocked some of the encrypted data and demanded a second payment to unlock the rest, which the hospital declined.[22]

Health care organizations also face heightened regulatory consequences from ransomware infection. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) considers the mere presence of ransomware (or any malware) on covered organizations' systems to be a "security incident," which triggers incident response and reporting mechanisms.[23]

Further, if electronically stored protected health information (PHI) is encrypted by ransomware, a breach of PHI is presumed to have occurred.[24] This potentially triggers breach notification requirements to the Secretary of HHS, the affected individuals, and—in some cases—the news media.[25]