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WannaCry Ransomware

Criminals go where the money is, and cybercriminals are no exception.

And right now, the money is in ransomware.

It’s a simple scam. Encrypt the victim’s hard drive, then extract a fee to decrypt it. The scammers can’t charge too much, because they want the victim to pay rather than give up on the data. But they can charge individuals a few hundred dollars, and they can charge institutions like hospitals a few thousand. Do it at scale, and it’s a profitable business.

And scale is how ransomware works. Computers are infected automatically, with viruses that spread over the internet. Payment is no more difficult than buying something online ­– and payable in untraceable bitcoin -­- with some ransomware makers offering tech support to those unsure of how to buy or transfer bitcoin. Customer service is important; people need to know they’ll get their files back once they pay.

And they want you to pay. If they’re lucky, they’ve encrypted your irreplaceable family photos, or the documents of a project you’ve been working on for weeks. Or maybe your company’s accounts receivable files or your hospital’s patient records. The more you need what they’ve stolen, the better.

The particular ransomware making headlines is called WannaCry, and it’s infected some pretty serious organizations.

What can you do about it? Your first line of defense is to diligently install every security update as soon as it becomes available, and to migrate to systems that vendors still support. Microsoft issued a security patch that protects against WannaCry months before the ransomware started infecting systems; it only works against computers that haven’t been patched. And many of the systems it infects are older computers, no longer normally supported by Microsoft –­ though it did belatedly release a patch for those older systems. I know it’s hard, but until companies are forced to maintain old systems, you’re much safer upgrading.

This is easier advice for individuals than for organizations. You and I can pretty easily migrate to a new operating system, but organizations sometimes have custom software that breaks when they change OS versions or install updates. Many of the organizations hit by WannaCry had outdated systems for exactly these reasons. But as expensive and time-consuming as updating might be, the risks of not doing so are increasing.

Your second line of defense is good antivirus software. Sometimes ransomware tricks you into encrypting your own hard drive by clicking on a file attachment that you thought was benign. Antivirus software can often catch your mistake and prevent the malicious software from running. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s an important part of any defense.

Your third line of defense is to diligently back up your files. There are systems that do this automatically for your hard drive. You can invest in one of those. Or you can store your important data in the cloud. If your irreplaceable family photos are in a backup drive in your house, then the ransomware has that much less hold on you. If your e-mail and documents are in the cloud, then you can just reinstall the operating system and bypass the ransomware entirely. I know storing data in the cloud has its own privacy risks, but they may be less than the risks of losing everything to ransomware.

That takes care of your computers and smartphones, but what about everything else? We’re deep into the age of the “Internet of things.”

There are now computers in your household appliances. There are computers in your cars and in the airplanes you travel on. Computers run our traffic lights and our power grids. These are all vulnerable to ransomware. The Murai botnet exploited a vulnerability in internet-enabled devices like DVRs and webcams to launch a denial-of-service attack against a critical internet name server; next time it could just as easily disable the devices and demand payment to turn them back on.

Re-enabling a webcam will be cheap; re-enabling your car will cost more. And you don’t want to know how vulnerable implanted medical devices are to these sorts of attacks.

Commercial solutions are coming, probably a convenient repackaging of the three lines of defense described above. But it’ll be yet another security surcharge you’ll be expected to pay because the computers and internet-of-things devices you buy are so insecure. Because there are currently no liabilities for lousy software and no regulations mandating secure software, the market rewards software that’s fast and cheap at the expense of good. Until that changes, ransomware will continue to be profitable line of criminal business.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Daily News.

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Analyzing Cyber Insurance Policies

There’s a really interesting new paper analyzing over 100 different cyber insurance policies. From the abstract:

In this research paper, we seek to answer fundamental questions concerning the current state of the cyber insurance market. Specifically, by collecting over 100 full insurance policies, we examine the composition and variation across three primary components: The coverage and exclusions of first and third party losses which define what is and is not covered; The security application questionnaires which are used to help assess an applicant’s security posture; and the rate schedules which define the algorithms used to compute premiums.

Overall, our research shows a much greater consistency among loss coverage and exclusions of insurance policies than is often assumed. For example, after examining only 5 policies, all coverage topics were identified, while it took only 13 policies to capture all exclusion topics. However, while each policy may include commonly covered losses or exclusions, there was often additional language further describing exceptions, conditions, or limits to the coverage. The application questionnaires provide insights into the security technologies and management practices that are (and are not) examined by carriers. For example, our analysis identified four main topic areas: Organizational, Technical, Policies and Procedures, and Legal and Compliance. Despite these sometimes lengthy questionnaires, however, there still appeared to be relevant gaps. For instance, information about the security posture of third-party service and supply chain providers and are notoriously difficult to assess properly (despite numerous breaches occurring from such compromise).

In regard to the rate schedules, we found a surprising variation in the sophistication of the equations and metrics used to price premiums. Many policies examined used a very simple, flat rate pricing (based simply on expected loss), while others incorporated more parameters such as the firm’s asset value (or firm revenue), or standard insurance metrics (e.g. limits, retention, coinsurance), and industry type. More sophisticated policies also included information specific information security controls and practices as collected from the security questionnaires. By examining these components of insurance contracts, we hope to provide the first-ever insights into how insurance carriers understand and price cyber risks.

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Hackers Threaten to Erase Apple Customer Data

Turkish hackers are threatening to erase millions of iCloud user accounts unless Apple pays a ransom.

This is a weird story, and I’m skeptical of some of the details. Presumably Apple has decided that it’s smarter to spend the money on secure backups and other security measures than to pay the ransom. But we’ll see how this unfolds.

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Duqu Malware Techniques Used by Cybercriminals

Duqu 2.0 is a really impressive piece of malware, related to Stuxnet and probably written by the NSA. One of its security features is that it stays resident in its host’s memory without ever writing persistent files to the system’s drives. Now, this same technique is being used by criminals:

Now, fileless malware is going mainstream, as financially motivated criminal hackers mimic their nation-sponsored counterparts. According to research Kaspersky Lab plans to publish Wednesday, networks belonging to at least 140 banks and other enterprises have been infected by malware that relies on the same in-memory design to remain nearly invisible. Because infections are so hard to spot, the actual number is likely much higher. Another trait that makes the infections hard to detect is the use of legitimate and widely used system administrative and security tools­ — including PowerShell, Metasploit, and Mimikatz­to inject the malware into computer memory.


The researchers first discovered the malware late last year, when a bank’s security team found a copy of Meterpreter­an in-memory component of Metasploit — ­residing inside the physical memory of a Microsoft domain controller. After conducting a forensic analysis, the researchers found that the Meterpreter code was downloaded and injected into memory using PowerShell commands. The infected machine also used Microsoft’s NETSH networking tool to transport data to attacker-controlled servers. To obtain the administrative privileges necessary to do these things, the attackers also relied on Mimikatz. To reduce the evidence left in logs or hard drives, the attackers stashed the PowerShell commands into the Windows registry.

BoingBoing post.

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Malicious AI

It’s not hard to imagine the criminal possibilities of automation, autonomy, and artificial intelligence. But the imaginings are becoming mainstream — and the future isn’t too far off.

Along similar lines, computers are able to predict court verdicts. My guess is that the real use here isn’t to predict actual court verdicts, but for well-paid defense teams to test various defensive tactics.

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The Culture of Cybersecurity

Interesting survey of the cybersecurity culture in Norway.

96% of all Norwegian are online, more than 90% embrace new technology, and 6 of 10 feel capable of judging what is safe to do online. Still cyber-crime costs Norway approximately 19 billion NKR annually. At the same time 73.9% argue that the Internet will not be safer even if their personal computer is secure. We have also found that a majority of Norwegians accepts that their online activities may be monitored by the authorities. But less than half the population believe the Police is capable of helping them if they are subject to cybercrime, and 4 of 10 sees cyber activists (e.g. Anonymous) play a role in the fight against cybercrime and cyberwar. 44% of the participants in this study say that they have refrained from using an online service after they have learned about threats or security incidents. This should obviously influence digitalization policy.

Lots of details in the report.

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Cybercrime as a Tax on the Internet Economy

I was reading this 2014 McAfee report on the economic impact of cybercrime, and came across this interesting quote on how security is a tax on the Internet economy:

Another way to look at the opportunity cost of cybercrime is to see it as a share of the Internet economy. Studies estimate that the Internet economy annually generates between $2 trillion and $3 trillion,1 a share of the global economy that is expected to grow rapidly. If our estimates are right, cybercrime extracts between 15% and 20% of the value created by the Internet, a heavy tax on the potential for economic growth and job creation and a share of revenue that is significantly larger than any other transnational criminal activity.

Of course you can argue with the numbers, and there’s good reason to believe that the actual costs of cybercrime are much lower. And, of course, those costs are largely indirect costs. It’s not that cybercriminals are getting away with all that value; it’s largely spent on security products and services from companies like McAfee (and my own IBM Security).

In Liars and Outliers I talk about security as a tax on the honest.

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Attributing Cyberattacks

New paper: “Attributing Cyber Attacks,” by Thomas Rid and Ben Buchanan:

Abstract: Who did it? Attribution is fundamental. Human lives and the security of the state may depend on ascribing agency to an agent. In the context of computer network intrusions, attribution is commonly seen as one of the most intractable technical problems, as either solvable or not solvable, and as dependent mainly on the available forensic evidence. But is it? Is this a productive understanding of attribution? ­ This article argues that attribution is what states make of it. To show how, we introduce the Q Model: designed to explain, guide, and improve the making of attribution. Matching an offender to an offence is an exercise in minimising uncertainty on three levels: tactically, attribution is an art as well as a science; operationally, attribution is a nuanced process not a black-and-white problem; and strategically, attribution is a function of what is at stake politically. Successful attribution requires a range of skills on all levels, careful management, time, leadership, stress-testing, prudent communication, and recognising limitations and challenges.

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