Recently I've been getting asked whether I believe ransomware is on the decline, particularly for critical infrastructure. Part of the reason for this question seems to be a recent security briefing from White House deputy national security adviser Anne Neuberger, suggesting that language on the site of a new-but-already-high-profile ransomware gang, BlackMatter, could indicate that President Biden's comments to President Putin regarding consequences for attacks against US critical infrastructure may have hit their mark. Yet just this week, this same gang demanded a ransom of $5.9 million for an attack on Iowa-based feed and grain cooperative, NEW Cooperative.

So the question remains: Is critical infrastructure in the clear, is it a specific target of ransomware attackers, or is it simply on the same footing as any other organization? As we'll see — and as current developments confirm — it's clear that critical infrastructure is indeed at risk from ransomware attacks.

Before I get into the nuances of this, I want to quickly note upfront that much of this is going to be opinion or theories based on discussion with — and anecdotal evidence from — various security experts, ransomware victims, and news stories. I'm not a ransomware attacker, nor am I directly in touch with any, so I can only speculate on their motivations, interests, and plans. Where possible, I provide reference to further reading to provide context, but in general, it's important to note that broad under-reporting and inconsistent handling of ransomware incident data means that any predictions, projections, or summaries of ransom activity (on this blog or elsewhere) are likely somewhat incomplete.

The BlackMatter at hand

The BlackMatter website indicates that the group is somewhat selective in which organizations it will target for attacks. According to The Record, BlackMatter is particularly interested in organizations with a revenue of over $100 million a year, with networks of 500 to 1,500 hosts located in the US, the UK, Canada, or Australia. They state they are specifically not planning to attack organizations in the following sectors and would in fact decrypt data for free should they infect any organizations in them:

  • Hospitals
  • Critical infrastructure facilities (nuclear power plants, power plants, water treatment facilities)
  • Oil and gas industry (pipelines, oil refineries)
  • Defense industry
  • Nonprofit companies
  • Government sector

Interestingly, they do not include the food and agriculture sector in this list, though it is included in the US government's list of 16 critical infrastructure sectors. When NEW Cooperative's representatives pointed this out to BlackMatter, the ransomware group's response was:

You do not fall under the rules, everyone will only incur losses, everything is tied to the commerce, the critical ones mean the vital needs of a person.

On the surface, it's funny to think they are saying food isn't a vital need for people. The JBS attack at the start of June highlighted the importance of the food supply chain. The cost of basic meat food staples is still higher in the US as a result of the attack, which can make a huge difference to those living on or under the poverty line. BlackMatter explains the distinction in terms of the impact — it views loss of money for the company itself as the only real impact of the NEW Cooperative attack.

This may be because NEW Cooperative is a fairly small, regional entity, nowhere near the scale of JBS, and therefore disruption for them is not going to create anywhere close to the same level of impact on the US food supply chain. This leads to the question of whether these types of organizations really count as critical infrastructure on an individual level. That's a question for the US government to answer as they determine whether to respond to this attack and others like it. If you want to get into this more, Joseph Marks has a great write-up on the different aspects in his coverage for the The Washington Post's Cybersecurity 202.

In the meantime, it is interesting to see BlackMatter communicate so proactively on the topic of critical infrastructure and what they consider to be in scope. This could, as Anne Neuberger suggested, reflect a heeding of the President's warning. It could also be somewhat influenced by the lessons learned from DarkSide's experiences following the Colonial Pipeline attack back in May. BlackMatter states, “The project has incorporated in itself the best features of DarkSide, REvil, and LockBit,” so it's entirely possible their communications strategy is informed by the blowback DarkSide experienced in the wake of Colonial.

After coming under intense scrutiny and focus following the Colonial Pipeline attack, the DarkSide group published a statement describing themselves as “apolitical” and asserting, “Our goal is to make money and not creating problems for society.” When its infrastructure was then compromised and their bitcoin drained, the group decided it was time to shut up shop and lay low. This prompted a great deal of speculation from security commentators over whether they would reappear under a different name after sufficient time had passed. It didn't take long after the appearance of BlackMatter for security researchers to start pointing to indicators that the new ransomware group may be the phoenix rising from DarkSide's ashes.

Hackers with hearts of gold?

DarkSide and BlackMatter are not the only ransomware gangs to draw a line around healthcare and other targets that can impact public safety.

In March 2020, as the pandemic ramped up in ferocity, Bleeping Computer reached out to a number of high-profile ransomware groups and asked if they would lay off healthcare organizations in light of COVID-19. The group behind the CLOP ransomware stated that they have “never attacked hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, charitable foundations, and we won't." They went on to state, “We are not enemies of humanity... our goal is money, not harm," and they indicated that if a healthcare organization was encrypted by accident, they would provide the decryptor for free.

Four other ransomware groups responded to Bleeping Computer with similar assertions that hospitals are never targets or would not be during the duration of the pandemic. Some even sounded offended by the suggestion that hospitals could ever be considered fair game for attacks.

Critical infrastructure attacks abound

Yet, despite this, attacks against the healthcare sector were prolific throughout 2020. According to the 2021 Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report, “the healthcare sector… was the most targeted vertical for ransomware in 2020. Ransomware operators were brazen in their attacks in an attempt to make as much money as possible, knowing that healthcare organizations – which needed to continue operating to treat COVID-19 patients and help save lives – couldn't afford to have their systems locked out and would be more likely to pay a ransom."

We see the same trend continuing in 2021. The fantastic Black Fog site tracks publicly disclosed ransomware attacks on The State of Ransomware in 2021. Their stats highlight that 2021 continues to be a busy year for ransomware attackers and their victims, with more attacks in every month of 2021 than during their 2020 counterpart. They break down the attacks they track by industry sector, and the top 9 are all covered within the US government's description of its 16 sectors of critical infrastructure. Healthcare is the fourth most impacted sector according to their analysis, with government and education taking the first and second spots.

So does this mean that these sectors are in fact being highly targeted for attack? The answer is complicated, and there are a number of factors at play.

It's worth calling out again that ransomware and other cybercrime remains terribly under-reported. It's possible that one of the reasons we “see" most attacks in the sectors mentioned earlier is because they are very public-facing in nature. Thus, disruptive attacks against their systems may be more visible to the public — and hence more easily tracked and reported. Other sectors may be better able to avoid public disclosure, possibly in the hopes of avoiding a loss of customer confidence or regulatory or legal implications.

This does not mean that these sectors are not also appealing targets for some cybercriminals. Healthcare, government, and educational organizations are often highly vulnerable to attack due to a number of factors including a deficit of resources, reliance on legacy systems, complexity of technical ecosystems and user behavior models, and lack of tolerance for downtime due to the consequences to the public of a halt in operations. This latter point may also mean these sectors are more likely to pay a ransom demand: If an entity can't tolerate downtime enough to patch their systems, an attacker may speculate that they will also likely want to resolve a ransomware incident as quickly as possible, resulting in a paid ransom.

So, the question comes down to whether attackers think this way and specifically target these sectors.

Targets locked and loaded?

One of the things that most caught my attention about the DarkMatter website information, the responses to Bleeping Computer, and Unit 42's research was that they all seem to reflect the notion that ransom attacks are targeted. Indeed, in its response to Bleeping Computer, the Nefilim Ransomware group stated, “We work very diligently in choosing our targets."

Yet the BlackMatter site and a couple of the other responses also alluded to organizations being infected by accident. In its response to Bleeping Computer, the Netwalker group stated:

Hospitals and medical facilities? do you think someone has a goal to attack hospitals? we don't have that goal -it never was. it coincidence. no one will purposefully hack into the hospital. [sic]

But they then went on to add:

If someone is encrypted, then he must pay for the decryption.

The implication here is that while they may not go out of their way to target hospitals or any other organization, their attacks are opportunistic and whoever is hit is fair game and expected to pay.

So how do these things relate to each other? How can an attack be both targeted and run the risk of accidentally infecting unintended organizations?

First, consider the nature of profit-motivated attacks of this type. While there are profit-driven attacks that are extremely targeted —for example corporate espionage attacks — in the case of ransomware attacks, it is more likely that groups of organized cybercriminals are going to try to maximize their potential profits by orchestrating attacks at scale. By casting their nets wide, they are able to get more bang for their buck/ruble, making the most of their upfront investment to increase the odds of hitting organizations that are willing to pay. They may have an ideal target profile as indicated on BlackMatter's site, but that doesn't mean they won't take a spray-and-pray approach to see what they can hit. Even with a focus on a specific demographic, they are still likely to take a fairly broad approach to maximize the potential for profit.

This is consistent with the most common attack methodologies for extortion-based attacks. According to Digital Defense, phishing, RDP, and vulnerable systems are the top three attack vectors for ransomware attacks. While any of these can be leveraged in highly targeted attacks, it's more common for them to be used at scale. Phishing emails are sent out to vast lists of potential recipients, and malware to exploit RDP or other exposed systems is automated and set loose on the internet. With this in mind, it's not surprising that organizations that weren't being directly targeted will be impacted.

While it's important to note that the opportunistic nature of these attack methodologies means any organization can fall victim to a ransomware attack, that does not mean that specific sectors or geographies are not more likely to be hit. The majority of profit-motivated attackers may not be targeting specific organizations (unless there is another motivation at play), but that doesn't mean they can't target groups or classes of organization, as we see with BlackMatter's website. The sheer volume of attacks hitting the US indicates that whatever the chosen attack vector, it is often pointed towards specific geographical regions. Likewise, it's possible or in some cases, likely, that attackers develop phishing target lists with data specific to certain sectors that they believe will be more easily compromised or likely to pay. As already noted, critical infrastructure is viewed by many as sitting firmly in this category.

Critical infrastructure not in the clear

So what does all this mean? The incomplete data we have clearly shows that ransomware attacks are not in decline and critical infrastructure is certainly not in the clear.

We need more consistent reporting of ransom incidents to get a clearer picture of what's really happening, but we can confidently say healthcare providers, governments, and education are regularly being hit and need greater support to help them tackle the security issues I mentioned earlier.

The good news is that this is a problem that many are scrutinizing, and we're starting to see more resources and assistance for critical infrastructure. If you work in one of the US critical infrastructure sectors, check out the free tools and services CISA provides to help you protect yourself. If you are working for a government entity (including public education and healthcare providers), you may also qualify for free services from the MS-ISAC.

In addition, the US Senate recently passed infrastructure legislation that would provide federal grants and funding to several critical infrastructure sectors — such as state and local governments, energy, and water — to help them strengthen their cybersecurity postures. We hope this may be extending and that, as Congress considers large spending bills, the healthcare sector should be provided access to federal funding and other resources dedicated to cybersecurity.

The US government has also announced a number of other measures both to address ransomware and to shore up cybersecurity in critical infrastructure. We hope that, over time, we will see these efforts bearing fruit in the form of less successful attacks against critical infrastructure.

The Ransomware Task Force also identified a number of recommendations for governments to better support critical infrastructure, from grant funding (pages 40 and 41) to mandated adoption of cyber hygiene measures (page 39) and provision of emergency response authorities in the event of a successful attack (page 42). The US government is already taking action on some of these priorities, such as requiring greater cyber hygiene for federal agencies and contractors, and including a response and recovery fund for victims of cyberattack in the pending infrastructure legislation.

Although all public data sources agree that far more ransomware attacks are being reported in the US than in any other country, this is not only a US issue. Many other countries are impacted, and we see critical infrastructure being hit around the world. Governments in other affected countries are likely taking or investigating similar measures, though to date, they have mostly been less vocal on it in public.

In an ideal world, governments will work together to amplify the impact of their actions and proactively deter and disrupt the global ransomware market. To that end, I look forward to seeing what will come from the Extraordinary Senior Officials Forum on ransomware that the G7 has committed to holding before the end of 2021.

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