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Valuable Lessons from Recent Cyber Extortions
The recent data breach at LifeLabs, which affected nearly half of Canada’s population, and the recent data breach at the City of Pensacola highlight the growing danger of cyber extortions.
What Is Cyber Extortion?
Extortion – the act of using threats to gain something from someone – has been given a new form in the cyber world.
In the case of the data breach at LifeLabs, cybercriminals gained access to the company’s computer systems, stole data and thereafter demanded ransom payment from the company in exchange for the stolen data. In a joint statement, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia said, “LifeLabs advised our offices that cyber criminals penetrated the company's systems, extracting data and demanding a ransom.”
"Retrieving the data by making a payment," said Charles Brown, President and CEO of LifeLabs, was one of the several measures taken by the company to protect customer information.
The recent cyber extortion at the City of Pensacola, meanwhile, involved a headline-grabbing method: ransomware – a malicious software (malware) that encrypts computer files, locks out users and demands from victims ransom payment in exchange for the decryption keys that would unlock the encrypted files. The group behind the ransomware called “Maze” claimed responsibility for the ransomware attack at the City of Pensacola. The group demanded that the City pay $1 million ransom to decrypt the encrypted files.
Ten percent or 2GB of the data stolen before encrypting the computer files of the City was recently published online by the group behind Maze ransomware. When asked by BleepingComputer if the group intends to release the rest of the stolen data, the group said, "It depends".
The group behind Maze ransomware similarly published online 10% or 700 MB of data stolen from another victim, the Allied Universal after the victim failed to pay the group’s demand of 300 bitcoins then valued at nearly $2.3 million. The group told BleepingComputer that the rest of the stolen data will be leaked online if the increased ransom of $3.8 million won’t be paid.
How Cyber Extortion Works?
How the attackers penetrated the LifeLabs’ computer systems, how the data was extracted data and how the ransom demand was made haven’t been made public. For Maze ransomware, however, there’s a handful of data online.
Security researcher Jérôme Segura first observed in May of this year Maze ransomware in the wild initially infecting victims’ computers via the Fallout exploit kit through a fake cryptocurrency exchange site. Fallout exploit kit exploits the security vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows and Adobe Flash Player. In October of this year, security researcher JAMESWT observed Maze ransomware infecting victims in Italy through a phishing campaign that tricks victims into opening the attached document in an email pretending to be from the Italian Revenue Agency.
Researchers from Cisco Talos reported that they’ve also observed Maze ransomware in the wild. In a Maze ransomeware attack, the researchers said that after obtaining access to a network, CobaltStrike is used. CobaltStrike is a commercial penetration testing tool that markets itself as “adversary simulation software designed to execute targeted attacks and emulate the post-exploitation actions of advanced threat actors”. Cobalt Strike uses well-known tools, including Mimikatz – a tool that’s capable of obtaining plaintext Windows account logins and passwords.
According to Cisco Talos researchers, once the adversary behind Maze ransomware has access to the victim’s network, at least a week is spent moving around the network and gathering data along the way. The researchers added that the gathered data is extracted by using “PowerShell to dump large amounts of data via FTP out of the network”. After data extraction, Maze ransomware is then deployed on the compromised computers, the researchers at Cisco Talos said.
The researchers at Cisco Talos added that the observed Maze ransomware attacks also involved interactive logins via Windows Remote Desktop Protocol and remote PowerShell execution achieved via Windows Management Instrumentation Command-Line (WMIC).
In its 2020 Threats Predictions Report, McAfee Labs said that for 2020, it predicts that targeted penetration of corporate networks will continue to grow and ultimately give way to two-stage extortion attacks, with the first stage of attack involving a crippling ransomware attack and the second stage of attack involving the threat to disclose the data stolen before the ransomware attack.
Preventive and Mitigating Measures Against Cyber Extortion
While having a working backup system is still a must to protect your organization’s sensitive data, as shown in the recent cyber extortions, brushing off cyber-attacks through better backup systems will prove to be not enough in 2020 as attackers are aiming for data theft and leveraging this stolen data to get what they want.
Here are some of the preventive and mitigating measures against cyber extortion:
- Keep All Software Up to Date
Keeping all your organization’s software up to date stops attackers at their tracks as the latest software security updates typically fix security vulnerabilities.
- Apply the Principle of Least Privilege
The principle of least privilege promotes minimal user privileges on computers based on user’s job necessities. For instance, if the user’s work isn’t IT-related, his or her computer access shouldn’t allow administrative rights, referring to the right to install software, change the operating systems configuration settings and other higher-level access.
- Disable Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)
There have been many document cases whereby Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) had been used by attackers as a gateway to their victims’ networks. It’s advisable to disable RDP when this service isn’t used.
- Keep Backups Offline
Over the past few months, attackers have specifically targeted backup systems. It’s advisable to keep your organization’s backup systems offline.
Cyber extortions has become a new norm and many organizations have already fell victim. Connect with our team of cybersecurity experts today to understand you weakest links better and mitigate the risk of cyber extortion.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP