Ransomware (& the importance of backups)

By Chris Williams

“A backup is worth a thousand bitcoin.”
While not a literal exchange rate, the above quip does contain some truth in regards to ransomware attacks: if you still have access to your (unencrypted) data, then you don’t have to pay the ransom.

Backups methods (and pitfalls)

Many IT professionals advise scheduling a nightly backup as well as a periodic offsite backup utilizing multiple drives in a rotation, regularly scheduled cloud backup service, or both. The goal is to maintain multiple versions of the backup so that a “clean” backup isn’t mistakenly overwritten by an infected backup; versioning is easy in concept but poor management of physical media can result in errors that undermine the protection backups are supposed to offer.

Example: the Acme Company uses a tape drive for its weekly full backups; there are six tapes that are rotated sequentially meaning six versions of the backup data should exist at all times. One week, an administrator is supposed to rotate from tape #2 to tape #3, but by mistake he replaces tape #2 with tape #1 and the backup on that tape is subsequently over-written. If a problem emerges that requires restoring from backup tape #1, the company is now in serious trouble because that data is gone—instead they’ll be forced to use the backup from tape #6 and lose an additional week of data unnecessarily. (Full disclosure, both tape drives and weekly backups are considered archaic, but this scenario illustrates the point well.)

Many cloud backup solutions automate versioning so that there is no margin for error. Once the solution is configured, each subsequent backup sent to the cloud will be tracked separately so that administrators can restore from virtually any point in time (provided the backups go back that far). As far as commercially available products go, Carbonite seems to be reasonably popular for SOHO users and some medium-sized businesses as well.

Test restore procedures

Test backup and restore procedures periodically. Even if your scheduled backups execute as planned with no errors, there’s plenty of storage left on the media (or cloud), and all looks well, do yourself a favor and test the integrity of the data as frequently as is reasonable. Few things are worse than a false sense of security, and corrupted or unusable backup data is exactly that.

Scenario: Acme Company is infected with ransomware first thing Monday morning. Management decides to restore from Friday’s “known-good” offsite backup—however, due to physical damage to the backup media, the data is corrupt and incomplete (or worse, can’t be restored at all). Once again, the company is forced to rewind an additional week by using the previous backup. This could have been prevented by regular testing, which would have detected the physical media issues.

The takeaway

Ransomware is one of the most pervasive threats facing individuals and organizations today. The best medicine is, of course, prevention. However, the next best defense is to take away the hacker’s leverage—being able to recover your data without paying bitcoin for the decryption key saves money, reduces downtime, and perhaps mostly importantly doesn’t reward criminals for their behavior. If every user and every business maintained backup data properly, ransomware simply wouldn’t be profitable enough to continue.

Current Events – Top 5 Cybersecurity Developments of 2016

By Chris Williams

To kick off the new year, we’ll take a look back at 5 of the most important cybersecurity events and trends from 2016, along with the circumstances that made each noteworthy.

5 – IoT-fueled DDoS attacks result in highest throughput events in Internet history

The threat posed by distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack has increased significantly over the past year; as attack techniques including reflection and amplification become more sophisticated, the amount of traffic which can be directed to attack a target now measures in hundreds of Gbps and will likely break the 1 Tbps threshold (if it hasn’t already) in a single attack before long.

We examine some of the causes and implications of this trend in greater detail, in an earlier article: https://paradoxprimeia.com/2016/12/06/mirai-ddos-iot-security/

4 – Among the first publicized instances of a nation state employing cyber warfare to influence the democratic process of another nation state

No voting machines were breached, and no tallies were altered—one cannot say that the election was “hacked” in a strict sense. Instead, information was obtained illegally by a team of hackers and then disseminated for use in a large-scale information campaign designed to influence the outcome of the election by shifting public opinion; a much more roundabout method that creates a measure of “plausible deniability” for all those involved, to be sure.

According to what has been released, the team that breached the Democratic National Committee’s network and obtained incriminating emails from key DNC personnel was not working directly for Russia. This is hardly a surprise. According to those same reports, however, investigators have been able to determine the origin of the hackers as well as their financial ties to Russian stakeholders; this, combined with various intelligence that demonstrates Russian officials had some knowledge in the campaign, paints a fairly compelling albeit circumstantial case.

However, the “who/what/when/where/why/how” isn’t necessarily the most pressing issue we face—our follow-up question should be, “what comes next?” Since the floodgates of political interventionism have apparently been opened, and the United States still has yet to address a multitude of issues with its critical infrastructure (among many other targets), there is ample cause for concern. Could a more direct election hack be next? Could we face a Stuxnet-style attack on our nuclear plants, or an attack similar to the one which took down power stations in the Ukraine? With the latest attacks in Kiev also being linked to Russia, it’s definitely a question worth asking.

3 – Ransomware continues to increase in prevalence, cybersecurity experts talk preparedness

Although ransomware has existed in some form for the better part of this decade, 2015 and 2016 both saw significant leaps in both the complexity and ubiquity of this unique strain of malware. By the end of 2016, losses to consumers and businesses skyrocketed to an estimated $1B; that figure puts this rapidly expanding form of cybercrime in a position to potentially replace credit card fraud as the top fiscal threat to organizations and consumers. It’s of course too early to see what 2017 holds, but we can only hope that increased awareness of the risks (as well as mitigating strategies such as appropriate back-up procedures for critical data) causes this trend to reverse itself.

In the meantime, hospitals, retailers, law enforcement agencies, and even private users should all be wary of suspicious files, unsolicited emails, and other potential vectors that we’ve discussed in previous posts. Like many attacks, a human element must be exploited in order to be successful; cybersecurity experts continually point to users as the most easily exploitable target, but training methods have not kept pace with threats.

2 – Apple sets a precedent by favoring consumer privacy over the demands of intelligence agencies

The terrorist attacks which occurred in San Bernardino in late 2015 had consequences which will almost certainly influence consumer privacy and data security for many years—due not to the nature of the attacks themselves, but rather the course of subsequent investigation and legal maneuverings which continued well into 2016.

At issue was one of the iPhones used by the attackers, which was locked using Apple’s built-in device encryption feature; the FBI requested Apple to provide them a means of bypassing that encryption, but their request was refused on the grounds of privacy protection. (There were other factors, however the premise “If we give you a backdoor then anyone can potentially have the same backdoor” is a fair argument which summarizes Apple’s position). Even after the conflict had escalated to a lawsuit, Apple stayed the course, declining to provide a workaround to investigating agencies; however, since the FBI eventually found another way of cracking the phone’s security measures, the suit was dropped and the whole affair essentially fizzled out.

Apple’s refusal to cooperate is a polarizing topic, with their stance drawing both praise and criticism from cybersecurity professionals. Regardless of how that debate plays out, the important thing to note is that private companies cannot be compelled to provide consumer information to government agencies without due process—at least not yet. Additionally, Apple was among the first companies of its size to publicly decline putting a backdoor into their systems; technology and telecom companies have historically complied with even the most invasive of federal programs in the interests of national security.

1 – Data breaches result in billions of compromised consumer records throughout organizations worldwide

The following is a “short list” of data breaches which were publicized (not necessarily took place) in 2016:

  • Yahoo 1 billion user accounts
  • Yahoo (again) 500 million user accounts
  • MySpace 360 million user accounts
  • LinkedIn 167 million user accounts
  • Office of Child Support Enforcement 5 million records
  • 21st Century Oncology 2.2 million patient records
  • Verizon 1.5 million enterprise clients
  • Centene 950,000 patient records
  • IRS 700,000 taxpayer records
  • FBI 20,000 employee records
  • DHS 9,000 employee records

Over the past few weeks we’ve examined data breach trends and discussed some potential safeguards which consumers should be cognizant of. You can check out these articles at:


The takeway

If 2016 was any indication, the cybersecurity landscape for 2017 will consist of a vast array of threats; consumers, businesses, and governments are all susceptible in part because of the common (human) element. User training & awareness programs should be considered by all organizations, regardless of size.

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