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How to prevent ransomware attacks: Best practices guide
Ransomware attacks are becoming common. The city of Saint John in New Brunswick recently fell victim to a ransomware attack.
What Is Ransomware Attack?
Ransomware attack is a type of cyberattack in which victims’ files are locked and held for ransom. In a ransomware attack, an attacker promises that in exchange for a ransom payment, the key or keys that would unlock the lock files would be released.
Ransom payment isn’t a guarantee that your organization will get back your files as some keys given by attackers don’t work by design or through errors in coding. Today’s ransomware attackers demand two ransom payments, one for unlocking the locked files, and another ransom payment to prevent them from publishing stolen data. This second ransom payment shows that today’s ransomware attackers, not just lock victims’ files but also steal data.
City of Saint John Ransomware Attack
A few weeks ago, the city of Saint John in New Brunswick fell victim to a ransomware attack. Last November 17, Don Darling, the Mayor of the city of Saint John, confirmed that the city’s IT system was hit by ransomware.
To protect the city’s IT system, the Mayor of Saint John said the city’s website, servers, and email system have been disabled. Due to the nature of the attack, the Mayor said the city won’t comment on the ransom demand. Saint John city manager John Collin, meanwhile, said that as of November 17, there was no indication that personal information was accessed or transferred in the ransomware attack.
Weeks after the ransomware attack, the Saint John city manager said that the city departments' phone lines, email to most city hall employees, and online payments are still unavailable. Saint John city manager said that taking the systems offline was an "immediate and proactive" response to contain the attack. "Our network will be back online only once we are sure that it is safe to do so," he said.
In the case of the city of Saint John, it wasn’t revealed how the ransomware attacker or attackers’ initially compromised the city’s IT system.
Exposure via Third-Party Software
The recent ransomware attack on the city of Saint John isn’t the first time that the city fell victim to a cyberattack.
In December 2018, Stas Alforov, director of research and development for Gemini Advisory, said the firm discovered nearly 300,000 payment records in underground marketplaces that specialize in the sale of compromised payment card data. According to Alforov, the payment records were stolen from 46 confirmed compromised US locations and one Canadian location, with 6,000 payment records from Canada. That one Canadian location is the city of Saint John.
Alforov said the breach of nearly 300,000 payment records is part of the larger hacking operation conducted by the same hacking group. Analysis of the card data, Alforov said, found that payment records have likely been stolen from municipal government services that used the software called “Click2Gov,” a payment software primarily used by local governments to receive various payments.
In the case of the city of Saint John, the Click2Gov payment software was used for paying parking tickets through the city's website. Alforov told Huffington Post Canada that he received a call from the city of Saint John after the publication of his report. The city, he said, wasn't aware of the data breach. Alforov added that the city’s parking ticket payment system appeared to have been breach back in September 2017.
To date, there’s no information on whether the past data breach on the city of Saint John’s parking ticket system is related to the recent ransomware attack.
Other victims of ransomware attacks such as the city of Keene, Texas, were able to establish the link between the compromised third-party software and the resulting ransomware attack. In August 2019, Keene Mayor Gary Heinrich told NPR that ransomware attackers compromised the software used by the city. This software, the mayor said, was managed by a third-party company. Said software was also used by close to two dozen local governments in Texas, which also fell to a collective ransomware attack.
"They got into our software provider, the guys who run our IT systems," Heinrich said. "Well, just about everything we do at City Hall is impacted.”
The ransomware attack on the local governments of Texas, including the City of Keene, showed a gateway by which ransomware attackers initially compromise their victims, that is, through third-party software.
Cybersecurity Best Practices
Here are some of the best cybersecurity practices against ransomware attacks:
Properly Vet Third-Party Software
Third-party software, which your organization has no control over the source code, should be properly vetted in the cybersecurity area.
Keep All Software Up to Date
Apply in a timely manner software updates, also known as patches, that are released by software vendors. These patches not only contain feature upgrades but also updates fixing known security vulnerabilities.
Ransomware attackers have been known to initially compromise victims by exploiting a known security vulnerability, in which the software vendor already released a patch but the software users failed to apply the patch in a timely manner.
Practice the 3-2-1 Backup Rule
The 3-2-1 backup rule is your organization’s best defense against the first type of ransom demand: ransom demand to unlock files. The 3-2-1 backup rule states that three backup copies should be kept, two in different formats, and one of these copies should be kept offsite.
This isn’t, however, the answer to the second type of ransom demand: ransom demand to prevent stolen data publication.
When you need help, our team of cybersecurity and IT experts is a phone call away. Connect with us today, and take a proactive approach to cybersecurity.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP