In the past few months, we’ve seen ransomware attacks shut down healthcare across Ireland, fuel delivery across parts of the US, and meat processing across Australia, Canada and the US. We’ve seen demands of payments in the tens of millions of dollars. We’re also continuing to see trends around ransomware-as-a-service and double or triple extortion continuing to rise. It’s clear that ransomware attacks are increasing in frequency, breadth, sophistication, scale, and impact.

Recognizing this, the Institute for Security and Technology put together a comprehensive Ransomware Task Force (RTF) to identify new approaches to shift the dynamics of ransomware and reduce opportunities for attackers. The Ransomware Task Force involved more than 60 participants representing a wide range of expertise and experience, including from multiple governments, law enforcement, civil society and public policy nonprofits, and security advancement groups. From the private sector, organizations of all sizes participated, including many that have experienced ransomware attacks firsthand or that are involved in dealing with the fallout, such as cybersecurity companies, law firms, and cyber insurers. Rapid7 was among those that participated — I was one of the co-chairs, and my amazing colleagues, Bob Rudis, Tod Beardsley, and Scott King participated as well.

From the outset, the intent of the Task Force was to look at the issue holistically and come up with a comprehensive set of recommendations to deter and disrupt ransomware attackers, thereby helping organizations prepare for and respond to attacks at scale. Recognizing the scale and severity of the issue — and the need for systemic and societal responses — our target audience was policymakers and government leaders.

The Task Force recognized that ransomware is not a new topic, and we had no desire to rehash previous efforts. Instead, we sought to learn from them and, where appropriate, amplify and extend them, supporting the next period of growth on this thorny issue. Ransomware’s reach and impact are increasing, which has a serious impact on society. The effects are only likely to worsen without significant action from governments and other leaders.

Key recommendations

The final report issued by the Task Force makes 48 recommendations, broken into actions to deter, disrupt, prepare for, and respond to ransomware attacks. The recommendations are designed to work in concert with each other, though we recognize there are a large number of them, and many will take time to implement. In reality, though, there truly is no silver bullet for addressing ransomware, no one thing that will magically solve this problem. If we want to shift the dynamics in a meaningful way that makes it harder for attackers to succeed, we need to make adjustments in a range of areas. It’s also worth noting that the Task Force’s goal was to provide recommendations to government and other leaders, not to provide tactical, technical guidance.

Given there are 48 recommendations, and they are well set out in the report, I won’t go over them now. I’ll just highlight a few of the big themes and, where relevant, what’s happened since the launch of the report.

Make it a top priority

One of the biggest challenges we face with any discussion around cybercrime is that it’s often viewed as a niche technical problem, not as a broad societal issue. This has made it harder to get the required attention and investment in solutions. The Task Force called for senior political leaders to recognize ransomware for what it is: a national security issue and a major threat to our ways of life (Action 1.2.5, page 26). We also called for a whole-of-government approach whereby leaders would engage various stakeholders across the government to help ensure necessary action is taking place collaboratively across the board (Actions 1.2.1 and 1.2.2, page 23).

One possible silver lining of the recent attacks against critical infrastructure is that they’ve helped establish this level of priority. In the US, we’ve seen various parts of the government start to take action: Congress has held hearings and proposed legislation; the Department of Justice has given ransomware investigations similar status to those for terrorism; the Department of Homeland Security has issued new cybersecurity guidelines for pipelines; the White House issued a memo to urge the private sector to take steps to protect against ransomware; and even President Biden has talked about ransomware in press conferences and with other world leaders.

Global action for a global problem

To take meaningful action to reduce ransomware attacks, we must acknowledge the geopolitical aspects. Firstly, the issue affects countries all around the world. Governments taking action should do so in coordination and cooperation in order to amplify the impact and hit attackers on multiple fronts at once (Actions 1.1.1 - 1.1.4, 1.2.6, pages 21-22, 26).

Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, one of the main advantages for attackers is the existence of nations that provide safe havens, because they’re either unwilling or unable to prosecute cybercriminals. This also makes it much harder for other countries to prosecute these criminals, and as such, ransomware attackers rarely seem to fear consequences for their actions.

The Task Force recommended that governments work together to tackle the issue of safe havens and adopt key practices to protect their citizens — or help them better protect themselves (Actions 1.3.1 and 1.3.2, page 27).

We’ve already seen some progress in this regard, as ransomware was raised at the recent G7 Summit, and the resulting communique included the following commitment from members:

“We also commit to work together to urgently address the escalating shared threat from criminal ransomware networks. We call on all states to urgently identify and disrupt ransomware criminal networks operating from within their borders, and hold those networks accountable for their actions.”

It will be interesting to see whether and how the G7 members will follow through on this commitment. I hope they’ll take action, build momentum, and recruit participation from other nations.

Reducing paths to revenue

As mentioned above, we’re seeing attackers demand higher and higher ransoms, which likely attracts other criminals to enter the market. Hopefully, the opposite is also true; if we reduce the opportunity to make money from ransomware, the number of attacks will decrease.

This rationale, coupled with discomfort over the idea of ransom payments being used to fund other types of organized crime — including human trafficking, child exploitation, and weapons trafficking — resulted in a great deal of discussion around the notion of banning ransom payments.

While the Task Force agreed that payments should be discouraged, the idea of a legal prohibition was challenging. Given the lack of real risk or friction for attackers, it’s likely that if payments were outlawed, attackers wouldn’t simply give up. Rather, they’d first play a game of chicken against victims, focusing on the organizations least likely to resist paying — namely providers of critical functions that can’t be disrupted without profound impact on society, or small-to-medium businesses that aren’t financially able to prepare for and weather an attack.

Given the concerns over these practicalities, the Task Force did not recommend banning payments. Rather, we looked at alternative ways of reducing the ease with which attackers realize a profit. There are two main paths to this: reducing the likelihood of victims making a payment, and making it technically harder for attackers to get their payment.

In terms of making victims think twice before making a payment, the RTF recommended a few measures:

  • Requiring the disclosure of payments (Action 4.2.4, page 46): This will help to build greater understanding of what is happening in the attack landscape and may enable law enforcement to build more information on attackers, or even recapture payments.
  • Requiring organizations to conduct cost-benefit analysis prior to making payments (Action 4.3.1 and 4.3.2, pages 47 and 48): This will encourage organizations to look into alternative options for resolution — for example, turning to the No More Ransom Project to seek decryption keys.
  • Creating a fund to assist certain organizations in recovery (Action 4.1.2, page 43): Often, organizations say the cost of recovery significantly outsizes that of the ransom, leaving them no choice but to give into their attacker’s demands. For qualifying organizations, this fund would rebalance the scales and give them a pragmatic alternative to paying the ransom.

On the other track — disrupting the system that facilitates the payment of ransoms — the RTF recommended that cryptocurrency exchanges, kiosks, and over-the-counter trading desks be required to comply with existing laws, such as Know Your Customer (KYC), Anti-Money Laundering (AML), and Combatting Financing of Terrorism (CFT) (Action 2.1.2, pages 29 and 30).

Better preparation, better response

During the explorations of the Task Force, it became apparent that part of the reason ransomware attacks are so successful is that many organizations don’t truly understand the threat, believe it’s relevant to them, or understand how to protect themselves. We repeatedly heard that, while there is a lot of information on ransomware, it’s overwhelming and often unhelpful. Many organizations don’t know what to focus on, and guidance may be oversimplified, overcomplicated, or insufficient.

With this in mind, one of our top recommendations was for the development of a ransomware framework that would cover measures for both preparing for and responding to attacks (Action 3.1.1, pages 35 and 36). The framework would need to be pragmatic, actionable, and address varying levels of sophistication and capability (Action 3.1.2, page 36). And because one of our main themes was around international cooperation, we also recommended there be a single source of truth adopted and promoted by multiple governments around the world. In fact, we recommended the framework be developed through both international and public-private collaboration. It should also be kept up to date to react to evolving ransomware attack trends.

Creating the framework is a lift, but it’s only part of the battle — you can’t drive adoption if you don’t also tackle the lack of awareness and understanding. As such, we also recommend that governments run high-profile awareness campaigns, partnering with organizations with reach into audiences that aren’t being well addressed today (Actions 3.2.1 and 3.2.2, pages 37 and 38). For example, many governments have toolkits or content aimed at small-to-medium businesses, but most leaders of these organizations seem largely unaware of the risk — until someone they know personally is hit by an attack.

The path forward

Unfortunately, ransomware continues to dominate headlines and harm organizations around the world. As a result, many governments are paying a great deal of attention to this issue and looking for solutions. I’m relieved to say the Ransomware Task Force’s report and recommendations have seen a fair bit of interest and support. For us, the next challenge is to keep the momentum going and help governments translate interest into action.

In the meantime, my colleagues at Rapid7 and I will continue to try to help our customers and community prepare for and respond to attacks. We’re working on some other content to help people better understand the dynamics of the issue, as well as the steps they can take to protect themselves or get involved in broader response efforts.

Look out for our series of blogs on different aspects of ransomware, and in the meantime, check out our interviews with ransomware experts on our Security Nation podcast. You can also check out my talk and Q&A on the Ransomware Task Force at Black Hat, or as part of Rapid7’s Virtual Vegas, which includes a Ransomware (un)Happy Hour — bring your ransomware war stories, lessons learned, or questions.

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