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ransomware

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Problems with Multifactor Authentication

Roger Grimes on why multifactor authentication isn’t a panacea:

The first time I heard of this issue was from a Midwest CEO. His organization had been hit by ransomware to the tune of $10M. Operationally, they were still recovering nearly a year later. And, embarrassingly, it was his most trusted VP who let the attackers in. It turns out that the VP had approved over 10 different push-based messages for logins that he was not involved in. When the VP was asked why he approved logins for logins he was not actually doing, his response was, “They (IT) told me that I needed to click on Approve when the message appeared!”

And there you have it in a nutshell. The VP did not understand the importance (“the WHY”) of why it was so important to ONLY approve logins that they were participating in. Perhaps they were told this. But there is a good chance that IT, when implementinthe new push-based MFA, instructed them as to what they needed to do to successfully log in, but failed to mention what they needed to do when they were not logging in if the same message arrived. Most likely, IT assumed that anyone would naturally understand that it also meant not approving unexpected, unexplained logins. Did the end user get trained as to what to do when an unexpected login arrived? Were they told to click on “Deny” and to contact IT Help Desk to report the active intrusion?

Or was the person told the correct instructions for both approving and denying and it just did not take? We all have busy lives. We all have too much to do. Perhaps the importance of the last part of the instructions just did not sink in. We can think we hear and not really hear. We can hear and still not care.

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Ransomware Attacks against Water Treatment Plants

According to a report from CISA last week, there were three ransomware attacks against water treatment plants last year.

WWS Sector cyber intrusions from 2019 to early 2021 include:

  • In August 2021, malicious cyber actors used Ghost variant ransomware against a California-based WWS facility. The ransomware variant had been in the system for about a month and was discovered when three supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) servers displayed a ransomware message.
  • In July 2021, cyber actors used remote access to introduce ZuCaNo ransomware onto a Maine-based WWS facility’s wastewater SCADA computer. The treatment system was run manually until the SCADA computer was restored using local control and more frequent operator rounds.
  • In March 2021, cyber actors used an unknown ransomware variant against a Nevada-based WWS facility. The ransomware affected the victim’s SCADA system and backup systems. The SCADA system provides visibility and monitoring but is not a full industrial control system (ICS).

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A Death Due to Ransomware

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on a baby’s death at an Alabama hospital in 2019, which they argue was a direct result of the ransomware attack the hospital was undergoing.

Amid the hack, fewer eyes were on the heart monitors — normally tracked on a large screen at the nurses’ station, in addition to inside the delivery room. Attending obstetrician Katelyn Parnell texted the nurse manager that she would have delivered the baby by caesarean section had she seen the monitor readout. “I need u to help me understand why I was not notified.” In another text, Dr. Parnell wrote: “This was preventable.”

[The mother] Ms. Kidd has sued Springhill [Medical Center], alleging information about the baby’s condition never made it to Dr. Parnell because the hack wiped away the extra layer of scrutiny the heart rate monitor would have received at the nurses’ station. If proven in court, the case will mark the first confirmed death from a ransomware attack.

What will be interesting to see is whether the courts rule that the hospital was negligent in its security, contributing to the success of the ransomware and by extension the death of the infant.

Springhill declined to name the hackers, but Allan Liska, a senior intelligence analyst at Recorded Future, said it was likely the Russianbased Ryuk gang, which was singling out hospitals at the time.

They’re certainly never going to be held accountable.

Another article.

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FBI Had the REvil Decryption Key

The Washington Post reports that the FBI had a decryption key for the REvil ransomware, but didn’t pass it along to victims because it would have disrupted an ongoing operation.

The key was obtained through access to the servers of the Russia-based criminal gang behind the July attack. Deploying it immediately could have helped the victims, including schools and hospitals, avoid what analysts estimate was millions of dollars in recovery costs.

But the FBI held on to the key, with the agreement of other agencies, in part because it was planning to carry out an operation to disrupt the hackers, a group known as REvil, and the bureau did not want to tip them off. Also, a government assessment found the harm was not as severe as initially feared.

Fighting ransomware is filled with security trade-offs. This is one I had not previously considered.

Another news story.

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Disrupting Ransomware by Disrupting Bitcoin

Ransomware isn’t new; the idea dates back to 1986 with the “Brain” computer virus. Now, it’s become the criminal business model of the internet for two reasons. The first is the realization that no one values data more than its original owner, and it makes more sense to ransom it back to them — sometimes with the added extortion of threatening to make it public — than it does to sell it to anyone else. The second is a safe way of collecting ransoms: bitcoin.

This is where the suggestion to ban cryptocurrencies as a way to “solve” ransomware comes from. Lee Reiners, executive director of the Global Financial Markets Center at Duke Law, proposed this in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Journalist Jacob Silverman made the same proposal in a New Republic essay. Without this payment channel, they write, the major ransomware epidemic is likely to vanish, since the only payment alternatives are suitcases full of cash or the banking system, both of which have severe limitations for criminal enterprises.

It’s the same problem kidnappers have had for centuries. The riskiest part of the operation is collecting the ransom. That’s when the criminal exposes themselves, by telling the payer where to leave the money. Or gives out their banking details. This is how law enforcement tracks kidnappers down and arrests them. The rise of an anonymous, global, distributed money-transfer system outside of any national control is what makes computer ransomware possible.

This problem is made worse by the nature of the criminals. They operate out of countries that don’t have the resources to prosecute cybercriminals, like Nigeria; or protect cybercriminals that only attack outside their borders, like Russia; or use the proceeds as a revenue stream, like North Korea. So even when a particular group is identified, it is often impossible to prosecute. Which leaves the only tools left a combination of successfully blocking attacks (another hard problem) and eliminating the payment channels that the criminals need to turn their attacks into profit.

In this light, banning cryptocurrencies like bitcoin is an obvious solution. But while the solution is conceptually simple, it’s also impossible because — despite its overwhelming problems — there are so many legitimate interests using cryptocurrencies, albeit largely for speculation and not for legal payments.

We suggest an easier alternative: merely disrupt the cryptocurrency markets. Making them harder to use will have the effect of making them less useful as a ransomware payment vehicle, and not just because victims will have more difficulty figuring out how to pay. The reason requires understanding how criminals collect their profits.

Paying a ransom starts with a victim turning a large sum of money into bitcoin and then transferring it to a criminal controlled “account.” Bitcoin is, in itself, useless to the criminal. You can’t actually buy much with bitcoin. It’s more like casino chips, only usable in a single establishment for a single purpose. (Yes, there are companies that “accept” bitcoin, but that is mostly a PR stunt.) A criminal needs to convert the bitcoin into some national currency that he can actually save, spend, invest, or whatever.

This is where it gets interesting. Conceptually, bitcoin combines numbered Swiss bank accounts with public transactions and balances. Anyone can create as many anonymous accounts as they want, but every transaction is posted publicly for the entire world to see. This creates some important challenges for these criminals.

First, the criminal needs to take efforts to conceal the bitcoin. In the old days, criminals used “https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/individual-arrested-and-charged-operating-notorious-darknet-cryptocurrency-mixer”>mixing services“: third parties that would accept bitcoin into one account and then return it (minus a fee) from an unconnected set of accounts. Modern bitcoin tracing tools make this money laundering trick ineffective. Instead, the modern criminal does something called “chain swaps.”

In a chain swap, the criminal transfers the bitcoin to a shady offshore cryptocurrency exchange. These exchanges are notoriously weak about enforcing money laundering laws and — for the most part — don’t have access to the banking system. Once on this alternate exchange, the criminal sells his bitcoin and buys some other cryptocurrency like Ethereum, Dogecoin, Tether, Monero, or one of dozens of others. They then transfer it to another shady offshore exchange and transfer it back into bitcoin. Voila­ — they now have “clean” bitcoin.

Second, the criminal needs to convert that bitcoin into spendable money. They take their newly cleaned bitcoin and transfer it to yet another exchange, one connected to the banking system. Or perhaps they hire someone else to do this step. These exchanges conduct greater oversight of their customers, but the criminal can use a network of bogus accounts, recruit a bunch of users to act as mules, or simply bribe an employee at the exchange to evade whatever laws there. The end result of this activity is to turn the bitcoin into dollars, euros, or some other easily usable currency.

Both of these steps — the chain swapping and currency conversion — require a large amount of normal activity to keep from standing out. That is, they will be easy for law enforcement to identify unless they are hiding among lots of regular, noncriminal transactions. If speculators stopped buying and selling cryptocurrencies and the market shrunk drastically, these criminal activities would no longer be easy to conceal: there’s simply too much money involved.

This is why disruption will work. It doesn’t require an outright ban to stop these criminals from using bitcoin — just enough sand in the gears in the cryptocurrency space to reduce its size and scope.

How do we do this?

The first mechanism observes that the criminal’s flows have a unique pattern. The overall cryptocurrency space is “zero sum”: Every dollar made was provided by someone else. And the primary legal use of cryptocurrencies involves speculation: people effectively betting on a currency’s future value. So the background speculators are mostly balanced: One bitcoin in results in one bitcoin out. There are exceptions involving offshore exchanges and speculation among different cryptocurrencies, but they’re marginal, and only involve turning one bitcoin into a little more (if a speculator is lucky) or a little less (if unlucky).

Criminals and their victims act differently. Victims are net buyers, turning millions of dollars into bitcoin and never going the other way. Criminals are net sellers, only turning bitcoin into currency. The only other net sellers are the cryptocurrency miners, and they are easy to identify.

Any banked exchange that cares about enforcing money laundering laws must consider all significant net sellers of cryptocurrencies as potential criminals and report them to both in-country and US financial authorities. Any exchange that doesn’t should have its banking forcefully cut.

The US Treasury can ensure these exchanges are cut out of the banking system. By designating a rogue but banked exchange, the Treasury says that it is illegal not only to do business with the exchange but for US banks to do business with the exchange’s bank. As a consequence, the rogue exchange would quickly find its banking options eliminated.

A second mechanism involves the IRS. In 2019, it started demanding information from cryptocurrency exchanges and added a check box to the 1040 form that requires disclosure from those who both buy and sell cryptocurrencies. And while this is intended to target tax evasion, it has the side consequence of disrupting those offshore exchanges criminals rely to launder their bitcoin. Speculation on cryptocurrency is far less attractive since the speculators have to pay taxes but most exchanges don’t help out by filing 1099-Bs that make it easy to calculate the taxes owed.

A third mechanism involves targeting the cryptocurrency Tether. While most cryptocurrencies have values that fluctuate with demand, Tether is a “stablecoin” that is supposedly backed one-to-one with dollars. Of course, it probably isn’t, as its claim to be the seventh largest holder of commercial paper (short-term loans to major businesses) is blatantly untrue. Instead, they appear part of a cycle where new Tether is issued, used to buy cryptocurrencies, and the resulting cryptocurrencies now “back” Tether and drive up the price.

This behavior is clearly that of a “wildcat bank,” an 1800s fraudulent banking style that has long been illegal. Tether also bears a striking similarity to Liberty Reserve, an online currency that the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted for money laundering in 2013. Shutting down Tether would have the side effect of eliminating the value proposition for the exchanges that support chain swapping, since these exchanges need a “stable” value for the speculators to trade against.

There are further possibilities. One involves treating the cryptocurrency miners, those who validate all transactions and add them to the public record, as money transmitters — and subject to the regulations around that business. Another option involves requiring cryptocurrency exchanges to actually deliver the cryptocurrencies into customer-controlled wallets.

Effectively, all cryptocurrency exchanges avoid transferring cryptocurrencies between customers. Instead, they simply record entries in a central database. This makes sense because actual “on chain” transactions can be particularly expensive for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or Ethereum. If all speculators needed to actually receive their bitcoins, it would make clear that its value proposition as a currency simply doesn’t exist, as the already strained system would grind to a halt.

And, of course, law enforcement can already target criminals’ bitcoin directly. An example of this just occurred, when US law enforcement was able to seize 85% of the $4 million ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to the criminal organization DarkSide. That by the time the seizure occurred the bitcoin lost more than 30% of its value is just one more reminder of how unworkable bitcoin is as a “store of value.”

There is no single silver bullet to disrupt either cryptocurrencies or ransomware. But enough little disruptions, a “death of a thousand cuts” through new and existing regulation, should make bitcoin no longer usable for ransomware. And if there’s no safe way for a criminal to collect the ransom, their business model becomes no longer viable.

This essay was written with Nicholas Weaver, and previously appeared on Slate.com.

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REvil is Off-Line

This is an interesting development:

Just days after President Biden demanded that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia shut down ransomware groups attacking American targets, the most aggressive of the groups suddenly went off-line early Tuesday.

[…]

Gone was the publicly available “happy blog” the group maintained, listing some of its victims and the group’s earnings from its digital extortion schemes. Internet security groups said the custom-made sites ­- think of them as virtual conference rooms — where victims negotiated with REvil over how much ransom they would pay to get their data unlocked also disappeared. So did the infrastructure for making payments.

Okay. So either the US took them down, Russia took them down, or they took themselves down.

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Details of the REvil Ransomware Attack

ArsTechnica has a good story on the REvil ransomware attack of last weekend, with technical details:

This weekend’s attack was carried out with almost surgical precision. According to Cybereason, the REvil affiliates first gained access to targeted environments and then used the zero-day in the Kaseya Agent Monitor to gain administrative control over the target’s network. After writing a base-64-encoded payload to a file named agent.crt the dropper executed it.

[…]

The ransomware dropper Agent.exe is signed with a Windows-trusted certificate that uses the registrant name “PB03 TRANSPORT LTD.” By digitally signing their malware, attackers are able to suppress many security warnings that would otherwise appear when it’s being installed. Cybereason said that the certificate appears to have been used exclusively by REvil malware that was deployed during this attack.

To add stealth, the attackers used a technique called DLL Side-Loading, which places a spoofed malicious DLL file in a Windows’ WinSxS directory so that the operating system loads the spoof instead of the legitimate file. In the case here, Agent.exe drops an outdated version that is vulnerable to DLL Side-Loading of “msmpeng.exe,” which is the file for the Windows Defender executable.

Once executed, the malware changes the firewall settings to allow local windows systems to be discovered. Then, it starts to encrypt the files on the system….

REvil is demanding $70 million for a universal decryptor that will recover the data from the 1,500 affected Kaseya customers.

More news.

Note that this is yet another supply-chain attack. Instead of infecting those 1,500 networks directly, REvil infected a single managed service provider. And it leveraged a zero-day vulnerability in that provider.

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Insurance and Ransomware

As ransomware becomes more common, I’m seeing more discussions about the ethics of paying the ransom. Here’s one more contribution to that issue: a research paper that the insurance industry is hurting more than it’s helping.

However, the most pressing challenge currently facing the industry is ransomware. Although it is a societal problem, cyber insurers have received considerable criticism for facilitating ransom payments to cybercriminals. These add fuel to the fire by incentivising cybercriminals’ engagement in ransomware operations and enabling existing operators to invest in and expand their capabilities. Growing losses from ransomware attacks have also emphasised that the current reality is not sustainable for insurers either.

To overcome these challenges and champion the positive effects of cyber insurance, this paper calls for a series of interventions from government and industry. Some in the industry favour allowing the market to mature on its own, but it will not be possible to rely on changing market forces alone. To date, the UK government has taken a light-touch approach to the cyber insurance industry. With the market undergoing changes amid growing losses, more coordinated action by government and regulators is necessary to help the industry reach its full potential.

The interventions recommended here are still relatively light, and reflect the fact that cyber insurance is only a potential incentive for managing societal cyber risk.They include: developing guidance for minimum security standards for underwriting; expanding data collection and data sharing; mandating cyber insurance for government suppliers; and creating a new collaborative approach between insurers and intelligence and law enforcement agencies around ransomware.

Finally, although a well-functioning cyber insurance industry could improve cyber security practices on a societal scale, it is not a silver bullet for the cyber security challenge. It is important to remember that the primary purpose of cyber insurance is not to improve cyber security, but to transfer residual risk. As such, it should be one of many tools that governments and businesses can draw on to manage cyber risk more effectively.

Basically, the insurance industry incents companies to do the cheapest mitigation possible. Often, that’s paying the ransom.

News article.

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The DarkSide Ransomware Gang

The New York Times has a long story on the DarkSide ransomware gang.

A glimpse into DarkSide’s secret communications in the months leading up to the Colonial Pipeline attack reveals a criminal operation on the rise, pulling in millions of dollars in ransom payments each month.

DarkSide offers what is known as “ransomware as a service,” in which a malware developer charges a user fee to so-called affiliates like Woris, who may not have the technical skills to actually create ransomware but are still capable of breaking into a victim’s computer systems.

DarkSide’s services include providing technical support for hackers, negotiating with targets like the publishing company, processing payments, and devising tailored pressure campaigns through blackmail and other means, such as secondary hacks to crash websites. DarkSide’s user fees operated on a sliding scale: 25 percent for any ransoms less than $500,000 down to 10 percent for ransoms over $5 million, according to the computer security firm, FireEye.

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New Disk Wiping Malware Targets Israel

Apostle seems to be a new strain of malware that destroys data.

In a post published Tuesday, SentinelOne researchers said they assessed with high confidence that based on the code and the servers Apostle reported to, the malware was being used by a newly discovered group with ties to the Iranian government. While a ransomware note the researchers recovered suggested that Apostle had been used against a critical facility in the United Arab Emirates, the primary target was Israel.

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