Here is a hypothetical scenario. You have locked your home with the strongest keys and gone on a vacation. On return, you find the locks can’t be unlocked by the keys. Rather they seem to be some other locks. You try to break them, but they are too strong to be broken. While making frantic attempts, you find a letter addressed to you – “Pay us a million dollar. We will unlock your house.” This is what a ransom is.
The above-mentioned scenario might have a remote chance of occurrence. However, similar scenarios are becoming pervasive in the cyber world. Hackers are arm twisting organizations and demanding ransoms through a specific type of software called as ransomware. A ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts files in the victim’s system and hence makes them inaccessible. In such attack, those files are targeted whose loss can cause a big loss to the victim. Then the attacker demands a ransom to unlock the files.
Ransomware attacks are growing at a blistering pace. Major security firms are coming up with staggering figures of the number of ransom attack attempts been made on firms. A report by Sonic Wall claims there have been around 600 million attacks in 2016. That’s a big jump from the statistics of 2015. The encouragement comes because the helpless victims have no better option than paying the ransom.
For instance, last year, there was an attack on the computer network of a large health service in the United States. The attack was so successful that the employees were unable to do any communication in the network. While efforts were being done to restore the services, the employees had to resort to papers to carry out the key operational activities of the hospital. The management found that the best way to restore their system was by paying the ransom and they paid $17,000 to the hacker via the digital currency. They got the decryption key and then could access their system.
Another major factor about the popularity of ransomware is the availability of digital currency. Digital currencies like BitCoins have gained much popularity and accessibility. Transactions through such a currency are not location specific and hence it can be seamlessly done across borders. Also, the sender and receiver cannot be tracked. Also, there is no authority for the currency that can manipulate the value of Bitcoin. So, if there has been a big transaction, the value of the transaction cannot be reduced by any authority. Also, unlike any other physical currency, there is no hard asset to back Bitcoin. Rather it has complex algorithms to take care of its value. Having such a secured currency gives the hackers a sense of impunity from financial frauds.
Hackers are now making ransomware more lethal. They encrypt the data as well as the file name. This makes it really tough for the victim to figure out the important file and decrypt them. Also, the encryption mechanism is so complex that the decrypting it would result in some data loss. Some ransomware author claims to have taken backup of the victim’s data and if the demand is not paid, the files would be made public. In such scenario, the victim feels paying the ransom is the best that can be done. However, there have been instances where the victims could not recover all files. Certainly, one cannot rely on the attackers to restore all their files. Paying the ransom is not the solution, rather it is a compromise that you make forever.
Ransomware attacks are now among the favorite attack methods of hacker due to its low cost, low risk, and high reward chances. Looking at the increasing attack figures of recent past, it is evident that there would be more attempts of this type in the future. Attackers would be trying to make more lethal attempts to arm-twist organizations to pay a huge ransom. To stymie such attacks, organizations must pull up their socks and make their systems immune to such attacks.
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