1 – What is Ransomware?

QUIZ:

What is RansomWare?

a) Hacker’s threat to post your sensitive information online unless you provide payment

b) Malicious software that encrypts your files and demands a payment to recover them

c) Electronic communication (e-mail, text) from kidnappers stating their demands for return of victim, occurring most frequently with tourists to Central and South American countries

d) A popular new game app for the iPhone

 

Ransomware has been around for quite some time, but it has been increasing in prevalence, especially over the last couple years. I have seen a great deal of talk about ransomware in security circles this year. I have also seen instances of companies making promises of protection from ransomware that they can’t possibly keep.

In looking for statistics, I have found a wide range of figures for losses and/or ransom amounts paid, depending upon the source of information. However, multiple sources suggest that the payments were in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars last year with a significant increase for 2016.

 

So, what is ransomware? The correct answer to the quiz above is “b.” RansomWare is software that holds your information hostage until you make payment to the perpetrator. The perpetrator says they will make it possible to restore your access to your files if you make the requested payment. There is usually a deadline. If you miss the deadline, you are out of luck and will no longer be able to recover them.

However, if you answered “a,” you may be choosing a secondary tactic used by some ransomware criminals. Although the “threat” is usually that you will forever lose access to your files, there have been cases in which they have added a second threat that they will release your information to the public, probably posting on a web site. If the loss of the files isn’t incentive enough, perhaps public embarassment or the exposure of your sensitive data might be enough to convince you to pay. So, while “a” is not the correct definition of ransomware, it may be part of the “threat” in certain instances.

 


Pay up OR ELSE
image

Ransomware typically acts in one of two different ways.

The first method is to prohibit access to your files and your computer. Your screen may be locked or blocked so that your normal ability to use your computer is prohibited. If you pay the ransom, they promise that they will unlock your system.

The second method is more serious. Your files are encrypted and you can no longer access them. Or, more accurately, the contents of those files are no longer available. As an example, if your file used to say: “Once upon a time….” it now may say something like: “.8Y%r&b4g.cX7|KWm]+/#+}RL0PQ>I.” The file is now worthless, until it has been unencrypted (decrypted).

With earlier versions of some types of ransomware, it was sometimes possible to decrypt the files without paying because of the criminal’s poor implementation of the “cryptographic algorithm.” In other words, the developer of the software that encrypted the files didn’t do a good job of implementing the technology to encrypt them. That meant their encryption could be broken.

However, ransomware has improved in sophistication and the developers have been fixing the problems with their software. Their software is becoming “better.” That means that it is not going to be possible to break the encryption that is now being used and the files cannot be recovered without the help of the criminal.

So, how do you get your files back? The attacker promises to provide the mechanism to decrypt (unencrypt) those files, but only if you pay them. And, there is a deadline. The ability to decrypt your files and make them usable again depends upon a “key.” They have the key and can use it to decrypt your files so you can access them again. However, when the deadline arrives, they will delete that key. If that key is deleted, you will never get access to your files again. Not even the attacker would be able to help you once the key has been deleted.

Typically, there is a countdown timer counting down to the deadline. There are also instructions on how to make payment. The method for making payment is typically by using “Bitcoins.” That is the new “currency” of the underworld, although it is also being used by legitimate people as well. Payment with bitcoins makes it harder to trace.

Use of bitcoins makes it harder for most people to make payment. How do you pay with bitcoins? Where do you get them?

To solve that problem, the attacker (extortionist) will typically provide instructions. However, some will provide an alternative for those that have trouble understanding how to make the payment. In some cases, the attacker will agree to unlock your files and restore access to them if you allow them to use your computer in their efforts to infect others to collect payment from other people.

 

So, you can either fund future criminal activities by paying the extortionist (attacker) or you can agree to become an accomplice in the crimes by allowing them to use your computer to carry out their criminal deeds. (Next week, I will talk about other choices you have, where you can avoid paying, thwarting the criminal’s attempts, and still not lose all your information.)

 

The most publicized victims are corporations. Businesses of all sizes and types have been victimized. However, individual home computer users are also victimized. The amount of the ransom demanded usually varies, depending upon the ability of the victim to pay and, sometimes, on the value of the data or the importance of the system attacked. However, the attacker’s goal is to get paid, so the amount they ask is typically an amount that they expect the victim will likely be able to pay, even if it is expensive for them.

You may think that paying is the best choice, if it is an amount that you are capable of paying. There are several problems with this approach. As mentioned above, you will be funding the extortionist’s future endeavors and also encouraging them to continue their exploits. However, there are also numerous instances where the victim has paid the ransom and has not gotten their files back. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the attacker repeats the attack. They have gained access to your system and can hold it ransom again whenever they want to. They may also have planted other malicious software on it and may have extracted your data already as well. If you pay once, it seems likely that you will pay again if they repeat their attack again in a couple months.

For a number of reasons, paying is not recommended. The best options are prevention and having an alternative response in place.

There are things you can do to greatly reduce your chances of becoming a victim. There are also things that you can do to minimize the impact if you do get victimized. You should do both. Reducing your chance of becoming a victim is an important first step, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll escape. But, if you have also taking steps to minimize the negative impact, you can turn a catastrophe into a mere inconvenience. Check back next week to hear more about that.

Implementation

Today, I want to review another theme that we saw in several of the tips from last month. That is the idea that a good security solution can be “broken” if it is implemented poorly.

Let me give an example that will illustrate the idea of implementation.

A traffic light can be an effective method of controlling traffic and avoiding accidents at the intersection of two busy streets. However, implementation is important.

An example of poor implementation would be if the light were green at the same time in all four directions. Fortunately, traffic lights are implemented to stop traffic on one road before traffic is permitted to flow on the other.

Another example of poor implementation would be if one of the signal lights were positioned behind a sign or a tree branch, so that the oncoming driver has no way of seeing the signal until he is far too close to be able to stop. A city official might conceivably argue that people should slow down so that they can stop in time if the signal happens to be red. But, knowing that a lot of people won’t, that argument would be flawed. Those responsible for traffic lights need to make sure the signals are visible from a sufficient distance to allow drivers to respond safely.

A good solution needs good implementation or it becomes a poor solution.

 

Problems with implementation occur repeatedly in security. Some of the places we saw it last month include:

*   The “chip” credit cards. The use of the chip could result in a lot better protection than it does in the U.S. By allowing the customer to still swipe the card or, with many of the cards, allowing the use of a signature instead of depending upon the chip, security is weakened. Although we discussed that the European version still allows for fraud to occur, the American version is far weaker.

*   The banks’ handling of security questions to verify identity, using information that is not that difficult to obtain.

*   WiFi security, both public and at home

*   Backups, which even the technology experts at well-funded organizations fail with on a regular basis

Implementation failures occur in at least three areas:

1) When the solution is being developed. The manufacturer of the equipment, the programmer of the software, and/or the creator of the solution may try to incorporate a good security idea in a way that weakens it or renders it ineffective. Or they could fail to take into account factors that are important for it to be effective.

2) When the solution is put into place. This could be when someone installs software on their computer or when they set up equipment. An example would be failing to change the password that comes with a new baby monitor, or using a weak password, or not having any password at all.

3) When the solution is being used. An example would be writing the password on a piece of paper and attaching it to the computer screen. Or having an alarm system for your home, but forgetting to turn it on when you leave the house.

All these kinds of failures can occur from a variety of causes, including:
*   Lack of knowledge
*   Carelessness
*   Human error
*   Inadequate planning
*   Impatience

Certainly that is not a complete list of causes.

In addition, failures can occur as the result of the difficulty of trying to address a complex situation or one that changes. That especially applies to security, a situation which is magnified by the common causes listed above.

 

Here are some thoughts on each of the stages where these kinds of problems can occur, and an approach to deal with them.

1) In the development of the solution. The consumer doesn’t have much direct control over how the manufacturer or designer creates the product. However, they can ask questions before buying, they can consider security as an important factor in their choice of which brand and model they purchase, and they can provide feedback to the manufacturer that security is important to them.

We have seen “fast food” establishments offer “healthier” choices as a result of public sentiment. If manufacturers and programmers know that the buyer will go somewhere else if the products don’t adequately address security concerns, they may begin to do a better job in the design of the products. In the meantime, by considering security and asking questions before purchasing (or having someone knowledgeable help in the purchase decision), the consumer can end up with a better choice from the selection of products available.

 

2) In the installation. By becoming aware of what is involved, the consumer can reduce the chances of making mistakes during installation. This may mean reading the directions, doing research, or simply asking questions of someone who knows what is involved.

Most people wouldn’t install a new furnace by themselves but would ask an expert. They would, however, install a new toaster (“just plug it in”) all by themselves. With computers, the installation issue can be tricky. Systems can be made relatively easy to install and seem more like installing a toaster. However, some security solutions address complex issues and installation may require “furnace” expertise even though it seems as simple as a toaster installation. Encryption solutions are one example of complex issues requiring precise implementation. Even though the encryption software may be simple to install, the “other factors” are extremely important. Ignoring those other factors results in a “broken” solution.

The answer to this does not require becoming an expert. However, it does require an awareness of which solutions require the greater level of expertise. Then, one can seek help when appropriate.

 

3) Use of the solution.
Knowing what things you need to watch out for (the threats and risks) and what things you need to do or avoid doing (practices) will help you avoid the most common mistakes made. There is always the possibility of making a mistake, no matter how much knowledge one acquires. However, awareness of the issues goes a very long ways towards avoiding the most common problems.

 

There are two main concepts I would like you to take away from today’s discussion:

* First, when someone makes claims about how good the security in their technology or solution is, remember that the way they implement it makes all the difference. They may say their product uses “state-of-the-art encryption” (or use some technical terms describing the type of encryption they use). They may say they use “two-factor authentication.” They may throw around words like “heuristics” or “adaptive technology” or some other impressive sounding terms.

When these claims are made, remember that no matter how good the claim of their technology sounds, it can be seriously flawed if it hasn’t been implemented well. That happens frequently. There are products and solutions that are well-designed and the claims being made are valid. I just want you to recognize that a really good-sounding claim using all the right words may end up being a flawed solution. Don’t be seduced by their claim just because it sounds good. (Reviewing third-party evaluations; getting opinions from informed parties and/or experts; asking questions; etc. are ways to address this.)

 

* Secondly, what YOU do with a product or other solution, both in setting it up and also in using it, makes a significant difference in whether or not it provides the desired results. The key to this is learning what is necessary to set up and to use it correctly. Whether you learn this by reading the directions and doing some additional research, or asking someone knowledgeable, or possibly “both of the above,” remaining secure requires you to be an active participant so you don’t end up “breaking” an otherwise good solution.

The other part of your involvement in the equation is to become aware of:
   a) The risks and threats that you face
   b) The options you have to address those risks
   c) The pros and cons of the “solutions” that you have available to you

One additional element would be helpful to know:
   d) A framework to make good choices in the complex environment of the many threats and issues and with the myriad of solutions to address them.

If you know “All of the above” (a, b, c, and d), you will be in a position to navigate the minefield and come out in one piece. Stick around and you will find all of that available, although it will take some time. When I say “some time,” I really mean a “little bit” of time on an ongoing basis as you learn a little bit now and a little bit more later.

The Security Solution

One common misconception about security is that you go out and buy a security program and install it on your computer, and that the security software will keep you safe. It would be really nice if that was all that was necessary. But security is a lot more than just installing a security program.

As we saw through the month of October with the 31 security “tips,” security involves a lot more than something a single piece of software can address. Security software is an important part of the solution. But it is nowhere near sufficient to keep you safe.

Some of the things we talked about during National Cyber Security Awareness Month were:

* Misleading promises made by marketers (some of them fully believe they can deliver on those promises but don’t realize there are limitations)

* Power failures and lightning strikes (that can destroy data and/or equipment)

* Common human error (forgetting to save a file, deleting something)

* Criminals (who have added the use of computers and electronic communications to their arsenal in order to steal, extort, commit fraud, and ….)

* Features that enable ease of use and automation also result in additional risks. Lowering the risks may result in less convenience. Some people will find loss of convenience unacceptable.

* Security solutions that sound good but overlook important factors and don’t fully address the risks (e.g., the new chip credit cards; “remote wipe”).

* Sometimes, security is sacrificed in favor of profitability (app builders).

Many of these are not the kinds of things that security software can address. Some of these can be addressed by security software but humans who own the systems will find a way around them, often for the sake of convenience. In addition, criminals on a mission to conduct their crime will find a way around them. For a considerable number of reasons, security software is only part of the solution.

One of the main points I want you to take away from last month’s posts (in addition to learning a few specific things) is that keeping safe means you will need to become more aware and continue to learn more over the years. I am not suggesting you become an “expert.” Nor am I suggesting you undertake an extensive study in the field of security. For anyone who wishes to do that, great! I would be happy to discuss that with you.

However, for all the rest of you, I want you to learn a little bit at a time on an ongoing basis. I will be offering a way to do that which will be inexpensive, easy, and (hopefully) may even be fun at times. But, whether or not you learn from me, I want you to learn from somebody.

Again, security has no “silver bullet.” There is no single solution. There is no solution that will be able to address all you need to know and to do in order to remain safe, apart from the ongoing process of keeping up with the changing security environment. As we have seen, some of those threats extend beyond the cyber world into the real world and may affect your health and safety.

If we want to be informed about world events, we don’t watch the news for one day and then decide that we know all there is to know from then on. If you want to be informed of world events, you watch the news, or read the paper, or follow it online, on an ongoing basis. In the world of security, the world of threats and what we need to know to keep safe continue to evolve, and the same ongoing process is required. That is the closest solution we have to remaining safe.

Without this knowledge, more than likely, most of us will be lucky a lot of the time. But, it only takes one time to make you wish you’d taken it more seriously. Maybe it would be loss of data, maybe identity theft, or maybe just the cost and inconvenience of not being able to use your computer until it gets fixed or replaced. Don’t forget that, for a great many people, their computer will be compromised and will be used to attack other people or carry out other criminal activities, without them ever finding out that they are enabling these activities to occur by remaining unaware.

So, the first “theme” I want you to take away from the past month’s tips is that security has a lot of pieces and that a lot of remaining safe depends upon you learning more about it.

If I needed to boil it all down into one word, that word would be

“AWARENESS”

That is what I wish for you.

Ghost Stories & the Virtual-Real World Connection

Many years ago, I watched a movie that was really scary. I don’t usually watch horror movies, but somehow I came across it without knowing what it was. I couldn’t turn it off. It took place in a remote wooded area. I think it may have been titled “Claws.” The main characters are in conflict with a bear and, as the movie progressed, one wondered if the bear may be supernatural and unable to be killed. I remember trying to go to sleep afterwards and talking to myself about how the bear wasn’t real, it was just a movie. It was all make believe and I was actually safe. It wasn’t really going to come and get me as I lay in my bed with the lights out.

Perhaps you’ve been at camp. Camp is good for “ghost stories” and the like. One year in grade school our class went on a field trip for a couple of days. It was in a secluded area and we had “nature classes” during the day. We went out in the field and saw the different kinds of long grasses that grew in this natural habitat.

At night, as we lay in our bunks, someone told a “ghost story.” It was about some unsavory character that lived in the woods. I don’t remember the story but image of ghost reading scary storyit was one of those designed to scare the young kids and make them terrified to go to sleep. Even if you knew it was just a story to scare us, lying there in the dark it was easy to wonder if maybe it just might be true. It’s not real… it’s just a story…. isn’t it? I hope it’s just a story. But, maybe…. What if he’s really out there?

 

OK. So, let’s talk about cyberspace. What is cyberspace, anyway? It’s all just “virtual,” isn’t it. Just computer stuff. Not really the real world. It’s all inside computers and what’s inside the computers can’t really “reach out and touch” the real world, can it? I mean, it’s kind of like television. It’s behind the screen and it’s different from the world we live in. Isn’t it?

But, what if it’s not just “virtual”? Could it really be real?

 

Twenty years ago it would be easier to say that the “virtual world” is not connected to the physical world. But today, so much of our world is connected through computers. Traffic signals can be controlled by computers that monitor traffic flow. Our telecommunications systems are computerized systems, so our phone calls, e-mail, text, and any other communication that isn’t face-to-face relies on computers.

Our water and wastewater systems are controlled by systems that can be accessed over the Internet. Many industrial control systems are also accessible through the Internet or through Internet-connected systems. So, the systems that control water processing and distribution and also other essential systems have a connection to the “virtual” world.

In “Daily Tip 31” (the extended tip version), I told of how a hacker had taken down a state-wide emergency response system (911 service) toward the end of last month. I didn’t provide many details, but he did this using a “botnet” where he controlled about 6000 smartphones to launch an attack. This is an instance where the virtual world “reaches out and touches” the real world, and disables critical functions. This kind of “virtual” world activity can actually threaten our life and safety in the physical world.
image of ambulance with negation symbol to illustrate it won't be coming

 

What about the information we share that resides on computers in doctors offices, labs, and hospitals? What if someone were to “alter” that information. Suppose they changed your drug allergy information. The next time you visit the doctor’s office, if your allergy information has been altered, could the doctor perhaps prescribe some medication that you are allergic to? If it’s a medication that results in a serious reaction, that change in your information could result in death. They often review your allergies when you are in the office, but are mistakes ever made? Are all recommended procedures always followed?

 

Just in the normal course of events, I regularly find that some of the information about the medications I take, which were reviewed each of the last several times I went to my doctor’s offices, are “missing” from the records. They have to update it every time. It’s not a matter of verifying it, it isn’t showing up in the records.

I have also had a doctor prescribe a medication to me that I cannot take (not an allergy but an extreme sensitivity). I had just told him that I couldn’t take certain medications. One of the components in the medicine he prescribed was the drug that I had just told him I couldn’t take. The result was really bad pain. When I researched it after the attack of pain, I discovered his error. Fortunately, it wasn’t a severe allergy.

If doctors and medical offices have these kinds of troubles with keeping information accurate or with prescribing medications when the information they receive is correct, think of the results if the records were altered by someone else. Can we really continue to think, “But that’s just the “virtual” world. That doesn’t affect our real lives, does it?” Think again.

 

As a final example, consider your bank account. It’s all numbers inside a computer. The number of the account, your social security number, the numbers for the dates and amount of transactions, the number showing your balance. What if someone messes with those numbers? Suppose they alter the amount of your paycheck and the numbers showing how much money you have in the bank? Do you think that affects your REAL life? You bet it does. If your money is all gone, and you can’t pay your bills, how long before you run out of food, before your water and electricity are disconnected, and other consequences occur? Hopefully, you could get that corrected in time. But, if all your credit cards were unusable and your bank accounts had zero balances, how long before it would impact your “REAL LIFE”?

 

Why am I saying this? Why am I painting these images of bad things that could happen?

It’s not to scare you. I am trying to make a point.

 

It’s easy to think of protecting our information as being something “in the computer,” much like the movie we watch is “in the TV,” or the ghost story we hear as being “in our imagination.”

It’s easy to say, “Yes, there may be threats out there, but why should I worry about those. After all, that’s only computer stuff. I live in the real world and that computer stuff isn’t going to affect my real world life.” But, unlike the movies and the ghost stories, a lot of what happens “in the computer world” can actually have an impact on our physical world and our real lives.

So, when I talk about protecting yourself and your information, that really does mean protecting yourself. Not just in a metaphorical way, but in a real-life physical way.

We may not always see the impact on our lives from any particular “threat” or the benefit of any specific “security measure” that may be recommended. But, just because it may not be obvious, I want you to realize that these are not just theoretical ideas. The decisions we make really can make a difference in our REAL world.

 

Some of you may say, “But I don’t have any information on my computer that would affect my real life. I don’t do anything financial online, I don’t store any personal information. I just use e-mail and surf the web. How can that affect my personal life?”

Although, at first glance, that may appear to be a reason to not take the concern for security seriously, I want to remind you about the way the 911 emergency services were taken offline last month. Consumer’s smartphones were used to attack the system.

If you don’t secure your system, your system can be compromised without you ever knowing it. Then, it can be used to attack banking, medical, utility, and emergency services, as well as other consumers. In other words, your unsecured computer can be used to attack systems that you rely upon for your personal, financial, and physical well-being.

The more we protect our systems, even when we don’t have “anything of importance” on them, the harder we make it for attackers to attack the systems that we really do care about, the ones that contain our financial and health information, and the ones that keep our communities safe.

Bonus Tip – What’s Next?

We have just gone through a month of focusing on CyberSecurity. We have discussed some scary things in the world of cyberspace. Now that National Cyber Security Awareness Month is over, where do we go from here?

Today is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day. Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve (i.e., All Hallow’s Evening, or HallowE’en’). I want to use the transition from Hallowe’en to All Saints’ Day as an illustration.

As we move from a day characterized by scary creatures and acts of mischief to a day of Saints whose lives are characterized by good deeds, it seems appropriate to move from the world of scary cyber stuff to one where we can support the good of technology and banish the bad.

Yesterday, I talked about how computers and other devices can be turned into zombies to do the bidding of cybercriminals when they get infected and come under the control of a Command and Control server. I mentioned how they can disrupt our ability to use the Internet and can even affect our health and safety in the physical world. I emphasized the need to be responsible and take measures to prevent our own computers and other devices from coming under the control of these cybercriminals.

 

It is one thing to say we should take security precautions, but quite another to be able to do it. There are so many things to be watchful of and measures to take. It can be confusing to know where to start, much less to know what measures we can take.

But we need to start somewhere. That “somewhere” is to become better informed. We need to become informed about the threats and how to avoid becoming victims. We need to learn what measures are most effective to keep us and our information safe. And we need to learn how to actually apply those measures. That cannot be done overnight. It must be an ongoing effort. But it doesn’t have to be hard (although it usually tends to be, unless you have someone to guide you).

The point of today’s post is to say:
You need to become better informed about security.

The reason I have started this web site is to begin providing guidance so you can become better informed, without having to wade through many years of study, reading books, attending lectures and seminars, going through a great deal of trial and error, and so forth. Over time, I will be providing ongoing training through courses, workshops, webinars, calls, etc.

The advantage of learning from me is that I can condense years of study and make your learning much easier, and can make even those things that are difficult to understand much easier to understand.

Over the last month, I have hurried through the infomation for these daily tips and have not been able to go into as much detail or to be as simple as I would like, due to the space and time constraints of this past month’s effort. With future programs, I expect to expand on each subject more, to take more time with each topic, and to allow opportunities for questions and interaction.

 

You don’t have to learn this from me. But I believe it is essential that you learn it from someone. If you choose not to join me for this, please find someone or some way to learn it yourself.

As we saw yesterday, those who are unaware of this information become pawns of the cyber criminals. Those who are not informed have their systems used as weapons of the cyber criminals to attack others.

Please take this seriously and learn all you can. Join the side of the Saints to be a good citizen of the Internet community and help fight cybercrime by protecting yourself, your systems, and your information.

 

Please make a personal decision now. Please decide that you will take at least some time and effort to learn something new about security every month. If you learn a couple things each month, you will find that, over time, you will become much better able to protect yourself and your information. You will also be much less likely to become one of those whose computers or other devices are used to disrupt the Internet or other critical systems.

If you have learned something over the last month, please keep coming back. There is much more to come, some on this blog and much through other material I will make available. I know you are busy and that it is easy to “forget” to come back due to the many demands on our time. If you haven’t already signed up for the notification list, why not do that now? It will give you reminders to come back as new material is released on this blog or to find out about additional materials or events as I make them available. You will find the sign-up form near the top, on the right side of the page.

Thanks for joining me this past month. Be CyberSafe!