Stand and deliver – your money or your (computer) life

28 03 2016

Ransomware. It’s been around for a few years now but in the last 6 months or so it’s really hit the mainstream press, and therefore entered the consciousness of the ‘ordinary person’. Recent high profile cases include a couple of hospitals in the US, a police station and a local authority in the UK.

Before I go into the details and explore what you can, or more likely can’t, do to protect yourself, I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the so called ‘underground economy’ of cyber crime.

Back in the day, the bad guys in the computer world were generally loners who did what they did for kicks and credibility amongst their peers. Very irritating, occasionally brilliant and generally disorganised.

That changed once it became clear that there was money to be made from what has come to be known as cybercrime. The professionals moved in as organised crime saw it as another lucrative string to their bow, promising low risk and high returns. Along with the increased organisation and the massive amounts of money, came demands for structure, specialists, quality control and co-ordination as well as the incessant demand for more and better products.

Nowadays a complete ecosystem is in place that is at least as organised as the mainstream legitimate economy. There are market places for the sale and exchange of everything from software to stolen credit cards. Code comes with money back guarantees, free trials, help manuals and even help desks. Every aspect of the economy has specialists who only focus on what they do best and hand on to the next person in the chain when their part is complete.

Into this mix comes ransomware.

Ransomware is, to put it in simple terms, a piece of computer code that you inadvertantly download to your PC. It might infect your PC via an email attachment, a website or even from an advert you click on. However it gets in, it has one purpose, to encrypt your files, and once those files are encrypted they will stay encrypted unless you can obtain the decryption key. And here’s the clever bit, in exchange for a fee usually in bit coins the bad guys will send you the decryption key.

The first you will probably know about it is a screen that will pop up on your computer looking something like this which is from Cryptolocker,

blog-cryptolocker

but they are all pretty much the same. At that point you have three choices:

  1. Restore your files from the backup (you do have backups don’t you?)
  2. Pay the fee
  3. Accept you have lost the files for ever and just move on.

Option 1 is fine as long as the backups are not accessible from the PC and the ransomware has not already found them and encrypted them as well. Assuming they are OK you simply need to disinfect your PC by running up to date antivirus software (the av software usually runs a day or so behind new ransomware so it might not work immediately – check online), delete the encrypted files and restore from your backups.

Option 2 is not ideal for a couple of reasons. Firstly the current fee is around 4 Bit Coins, which at time of press is about $700. For a company, that might be a small price to pay, for the audience of this blog it’s a not inconsiderable amount. Secondly, whilst it’s in the interest of the bad guys to make the process work, there are a number of reasons why it could fail. There might be an error in their code, there might be a problem with their use of encryption or law enforcement may have found them and taken the website down that’s hosting the decryption key. But as I said previously, this is a business and they are keen to maintain their reputation, and anecdotal evidence suggests that paying the fee will result in you receiving the decryption key.

Option 3 depends on you knowing what’s on your PC and whether you care about it. You still need to disinfect your PC but that’s about it.

So what can you do to protect yourself from ransomware? To be honest, beyond the normal good practice of regularly applying security updates and running up to date antivirus software not a lot. The age old advice of avoiding ‘dodgy’ websites, whilst still valid is not sufficient as many mainstream websites are infected these days (often via their advertisers’ sites). Not clicking on unexpected email attachments or following unknown links in emails is also fundamental good practice but is no guarantee that you’ll be safe.

One thing you might want to consider is to remove the admin rights from your normal account and create a separate account that you only use for admin type things (such as installing software). Some of the ransomware relies on being the Administrator on the box, so if you are logged in as a ‘normal’ user then it won’t work, or at least will only work on those files you control. Not perfect, but something.

The bottom line is that you are in the same position as the rest of us in the Commercial world. You have to expect the attack and then plan your response and try and mitigate the impact.

What stuff on your PC do you care about? Unless you are running a business, it probably boils down to photos and music, with a few personal letters thrown in.

You should make sure that you have backup copies of these important things. My previous blog about the Cloud gives some suggestions, but you could also consider offline backups on USB drives, SD cards or whatever. The main thing is to have them somewhere that is not immediately accessible from your PC, so that if bad stuff happens you’ve still got those photos of great aunt Daisy’s 100th birthday.

So that’s it I’m afraid. Ransomware is here to stay and will get more effective and more prevalent as time passes. Using the Internet gets more like Russian roulette every day, bad stuff is out there and it’s likely to get you at some point. All you can do is do the basics right (many of which I’ve covered in previous blog entries), and know what you are going to do when it’s your turn to get hit.

Depressing? Probably, but like everything else, until the general public really cares about something, governments and business won’t pay attention and get the problems fixed. Internet security is bubbling to the surface but at the moment there is more lip service than customer service being paid to solving the problem. Whilst software companies can get away with writing poor code, ISPs can get away with not caring about what they are hosting and Joe Public continues to do stupid things Internet crime will continue on an upwards tick that shows no sign of flattening out anytime soon.

 

Safe surfing

 

David

 

 

 

 

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