ISACA Journal
Volume 4, 2,018 

Features 

The Downstream Effects of Cyberextortion 

Tony Martin-Vegue, CISM, CISSP 

In the mid-1800s, manufacturing was alive and well in the Chicago (Illinois, USA) area. Demand for industrial goods was growing, the population swelled faster than infrastructure and factories had to work overtime to keep up. At the same time, the Chicago River was a toxic, contaminated, lethal mess, caused by factories dumping waste and by-products and the city itself funneling sewage into it. The river, at the time, emptied into Lake Michigan, which was also the city’s freshwater drinking source. The fact that sewage and pollution were dumped directly into residents’ drinking water caused regular outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and other waterborne diseases. The situation seemed so hopeless that the city planners embarked on a bold engineering feat to reverse the flow of the river so that it no longer flowed into Lake Michigan. Their ingenuity paid off and the public drinking water was protected.1

What does this have to do with paying cyberextortionists? Dumping sewage and toxic waste into public waterways and paying cyberextortionists to get data back are examples of negative externalities. In the case of the Chicago River, business was booming, but people downstream suffered unintended consequences. “Negative externality” is a term used in the field of economics that describes an “uncompensated harm to others in society that is generated as a by-product of production and exchange.”2

Negative externalities exist everywhere in society. This condition occurs when there is a misalignment between interests of the individual and interests of society. In the case of pollution, it may be convenient or even cost-effective for an organization to dump waste into a public waterway and, while the action is harmful, the organization does not bear the full brunt of the cost. Paying extortionists to release data is also an example of how an exchange creates societal harm leading to negative externalities. The criminal/victim relationship is a business interaction and, for those victims who pay, it is an exchange. The exact number of ransomware (the most common form of cyberextortion) victims is hard to ascertain because many crimes go unreported to law enforcement;3 however, payment amounts and rate statistics have been collected and analyzed by cybersecurity vendors, therefore, it is possible to start to understand the scope of the problem. In 2017, the average ransomware payment demand was US $522,4 with the average payment rate at 40 percent.5 The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) states that “[p]aying a ransom emboldens the adversary to target other victims for profit and could provide incentive for other criminals to engage in similar illicit activities for financial gain.”6 It costs a few bitcoin to get data back, but that action directly enriches and encourages the cybercriminals, thereby creating an environment for more extortion attempts and more victims.

Ransomware is specially crafted malicious software designed to render a system and/or data files unreadable until the victim pays a ransom. The ransom is almost always paid in bitcoin or another form of cryptocurrency; the amount is typically US $400 to $1,000 for home users and tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of US dollars for organizations. Typically, ransomware infections start with the user clicking on a malicious link from email or from a website. The link downloads the payload, which starts the nightmare for the user. If the user is connected to a corporate network, network shares may be infected, affecting many users.

The economic exchange in the ransomware ecosystem occurs when cybercriminals infect computers with malware, encrypt files and demand a ransom to unlock the files, and the victim pays the ransom and presumably receives a decryption key. Both parties are benefiting from the transaction: The cybercriminal receives money and the victim receives access to his/her files. The negative externality emerges when the cost that this transaction imposes on society is considered. Cybercriminals are enriched and bolstered. Funds can be funneled into purchasing more exploit kits or to fund other criminal activities. Just like other forms of negative externalities, if victims simply stopped supporting the producers, the problem would go away. But, it is never that easy.

Cyberextortion and Ransomware

Cyberextortion takes many different shapes. In November 2014, hackers demanded that Sony Pictures Entertainment pull the release of the film The Interview or they would release terabytes of confidential information and intellectual property to the public.7 In 2015, a group of hackers calling themselves The Impact Team did essentially the same to the parent company of the Ashley Madison website, Avid Life Media. The hackers demanded the company fold up shop and cease operations or be subject to a massive data breach.8 Neither company gave in to the demands of the extortionists and the threats were carried out: Both companies suffered major data breaches after the deadlines had passed. However, there are many examples of known payments to extortionists; ProtonMail and Nitrogen Sports both paid to stop distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and it was widely publicized in 2016 and 2017 that many hospitals paid ransomware demands to regain access to critical files.9

There is a reason why cyberextortion, especially ransomware, is a growing problem and affects many people and companies: Enough victims pay the ransom to make it profitable for the cybercriminals and, while the victims do suffer in the form of downtime and ransom payment, they do not bear the brunt of the wider societal issues payment causes. Paying ransomware is like dumping waste into public waterways; other people pay the cost of the negative externality it creates (figure 1).

The Ransomware Decision Tree

There are several decisions a victim can make when faced with cyberextortion due to ransomware. The decision tree starts with a relatively easy action, restoring from backup, but if that option is not available, difficult decisions need to be made—including possibly paying the ransom. The decision to pay the ransom can not only be costly, but can also introduce negative externalities as an unfortunate by-product. The decision is usually not as simple as pay or do not pay; many factors influence the decision-making process (figure 2).

Understanding the most common options can help security leaders introduce solutions into the decision-making process:

  • Restore from backup—This is the best option for the victim. If good quality, current backups exist, the entire problem can be mitigated with minimal disruption and data loss. This typically entails reloading the operating system and restoring the data to a point in time prior to the infection.
  • Decrypters—Decrypter kits are the product of the good guys hacking bad-guy software. Just like any software, ransomware has flaws. Antivirus vendors and projects such as No More Ransom!10 have developed free decrypter kits for some of the most popular ransomware strains. This enables the victim to decrypt files themselves without paying the ransom.
  • Engage with extortionists—This is a common choice because it is convenient and may result in access to locked files, but it should be the path of last resort. This involves engaging the extortionists, possibly negotiating the price and paying the ransom. Victims will usually get a working decryption key, but there are cases in which a key was not provided or the key did not work.
  • Ignore—If the files on the computer are not important, if the victim simply has no means to pay, and a decrypter kit is not available, the victim can simply ignore the extortion request and never again gain access to the locked files.

It is clear that there are few good options. They are all inconvenient and, at best, include some period of time without access to data and, at worst, could result in total data loss without a chance of recovery. What is notable about ransomware and other forms of cyberextortion is that choices have ripple effects. What a victim chooses to do (or not do) affects the larger computing and cybercrime ecosystems. This is where the concept of externalities come in—providing a construct for understanding how choices affect society and revealing clues about how to minimize negative effects.

What Can Be Done?

“Do not pay” is great advice if one is playing the long game and has a goal of improving overall computer security, but it is horrible advice to the individual or the hospital that cannot gain access to important, possibly life-saving, information and there are no other options. Advising a victim to not pay is like trying to stop one person from throwing waste into the Chicago River. Turning the tide of ransomware requires computer security professionals to start thinking of the long game—reversing the flow of the river.

English economist Arthur Pigou argued that public policies, such as “taxes and subsidies that internalize externalities” can counteract the effects of negative externalities.11 Many of the same concepts can be applied to computer security to help people from falling victim in the first place or to avoid having to pay if they already are. Possible solutions include discouraging negative externalities and encouraging (or nudging parties toward) positive externalities.

On the broader subject of negative externalities, economists have proposed and implemented many ideas to deal with societal issues, with varying results. For example, carbon credits have long been a proposal for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Taxes, fines and additional regulations have been used in an attempt to curb other kinds of pollution.12 Ransomware is different. There is no single entity to tax or fine toward which to direct public policy or even with which to enter into negotiations.

Positive externalities are the flip side of negative—a third party, such as a group of people or society as a whole, benefits from a transaction. Public schools are an excellent example of positive externalities. A small group of people—children who attend school—directly benefit from the transaction, but society gains significantly. An educated population eventually leads to lower unemployment rates and higher wages, makes the nation more competitive, and results in lower crime rates.

Positive externalities are also observed in the ransomware life cycle. As mentioned previously, antivirus companies and other organizations have, both separately and in partnership, developed and released to the public, free of charge, decrypter kits for the most common strains of ransomware. These decrypter kits allow victims to retrieve data from affected systems without paying the ransom. This has several benefits. The victim receives access to his/her files free of charge, and the larger security ecosystem benefits as well.

Once a decrypter kit is released for a common strain, that strain of ransomware loses much of its effectiveness. There may be some people who still pay the ransom, due to their lack of awareness of the decrypter kit. However, if the majority of victims stop paying, the cost to attackers increases because they must develop or purchase new ransomware strains and absorb the sunk cost of previous investments.

Decrypter kits are part of a larger strategy called “nudges” in which interested parties attempt to influence outcomes in nonintrusive, unforced ways. Behavioral economists have been researching nudge theory and have discovered that nudges are very effective at reducing negative externalities and can be more effective than direct intervention. This is an area in which both corporations and governments can invest to help with the ransomware problem and other areas of cybercrime. Some future areas of research include:

  • Public and private funding of more decrypter kits for more strains of ransomware
  • Long-term efforts to encourage software vendors to release products to the market with fewer vulnerabilities and to make it easier for consumers to keep software updated
  • Education and assistance to victims; basic system hygiene (e.g., backups, patching), assistance with finding decrypter kits, help negotiating ransoms

It is important for information security professionals to consider figure 2 and determine where they can disrupt or influence the decision tree. The current state of ransomware and other forms of cyberextortion are causing negative societal problems and fixing them will take a multipronged, long-term effort. The solution will be a combination of reducing negative externalities and encouraging positive ones through public policy or nudging. The keys are changing consumer behavior and attitudes and encouraging a greater, concerted effort to disrupt the ransomware life cycle.

Endnotes

1 Hill, L.; The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, Southern Illinois University Press, USA, 2016
2 Hackett, S. C.; Environmental and Natural Resources Economics: Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society, M. E. Sharpe, USA, 2001
3 Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Ransomware Victims Urged to Report Infections to Federal Law Enforcement,” USA, 15 September 2016, https://www.ic3.gov/media/2016/160915.aspx
4 Symantec, Internet Security Threat Report, volume 23, USA, 2018
5 Baker, W.; “Measuring Ransomware, Part 1: Payment Rate,” Cyentia Institute, https://www.cyentia.com/2017/07/05/ransomware-p1-payment-rate/
6 Op cit Federal Bureau of Investigation
7 Pagliery, J.; “What Caused Sony Hack: What We Know Now,” CNNtech, 29 December 2014, http://money.cnn.com/2014/12/24/technology/security/sony-hack-facts/index.html
8 Hackett, R.; “What to Know About the Ashley Madison Hack,” Fortune, 26 August 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/08/26/ashley-madison-hack/
9 Glaser, A.; “U.S. Hospitals Have Been Hit by the Global Ransomware Attack,” Recode, 27 June 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/6/27/15881666/global-eu-cyber-attack-us-hackers-nsa-hospitals
10 No More Ransom!, https://www.nomoreransom.org
11 Frontier Issues in Economic Thought, Human Well-Being and Economic Goals, Island Press, USA, 1997
12 McMahon, J.; “What Would Milton Friedman Do About Climate Change? Tax Carbon,” Forbes, 12 October 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2014/10/12/what-would-milton-friedman-do-about-climate-change-tax-carbon/#53a4ef046928

Tony Martin-Vegue, CISM, CISSP
Leads the security risk management program of a San Francisco (California, USA) area financial institution. His enterprise risk and security analyses are informed by his 20 years of technical expertise in areas such as network operations, cryptography and system administration. His areas of research include the economics of information security and data-driven risk management.

 

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