Ransomware is Spreading Like Worms: Are You Ready?


The WannaCry outbreak should be scary. Here are tips to prevent falling victim to the next wave.

The #CyberAvengers are a group of salty and experienced professionals who have decided to work together to help keep this nation and its data safe and secure. They are Paul Ferrillo, Chuck Brooks, Kenneth Holley, George Platsis, George Thomas, Shawn Tuma and Christophe Veltsos.

Curiosity turned blind luck saved us from something far worse from what we saw Friday as the Wanna Cry ransomware spread across the globe. Had it not been for a British malware researcher registering some gobbledygook of a domain name, who knows what we would be writing about today. At the rate we are going, if we were cats, we would be burning through our nine lives faster than Tony Stark builds Ironman suits.

In our last post, we said to stop sensationalizing. We mean that. So by no means should you think we are a tad bit overly hysterical because WannaCry did spook us all out. Friday’s episode is proof positive of three things:

  • Things can get wildly out of control real fast.
  • Cyber weapons have made it out into the wild and will be used against us.
  • We were horribly unprepared for this attack; we are still horribly unprepared for the next attack.

Luck—while a critical aspect of life—is not an effective resilience strategy. WannaCry has already been modified and there are variants with no “kill switch” in the code. More hurt is in order for the unprepared.

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What should concern us all was the brazenness of this attack. Everything was fair game: telecom, banks, health care, universities, and latest count is that people “wanna cry” in 150 countries. That’s some aggressive foreign policy when you negatively impact 75 percent of the world’s nations in 72 hours.  

The attack on health care is particularly disturbing—losing money is never fun, losing lives is worse—but not unexpected and perhaps even overdue. Health care is a peculiar industry because of competing interests. Specifically:

  • Patients and users require speed, but information security often takes time to process, putting the needs of front-line staff in opposition to the wants of security staff.
  • Management must be committed to quality care and their fiduciary duties, no easy task in an environment of competing needs.
  • Effective sharing of confidential patient information among primary-care physicians, hospitals and medical specialists has myriad benefits, but sharing introduces numerous potential points of failure. 
  • Budgetary constraints are felt more than in most industries as health care funding is becoming more difficult to secure and cybersecurity costs keep rising.

There is this issue, of course, that applies to all leading-edge firms, not just those in health care: If you want to be recognized as the leader of your field, you also have the biggest, juiciest target tattooed to your back.

And of course, there is this thing called emotion. It is possible you will dial your “freak-out factor” to 11 if you are already in a life-and-danger situation and suddenly find out your computer is useless to you. Should you find yourself in this situation, scrambling to find $300 worth of these funny things called bitcoins may be a cheap way out.

We need to underscore how lucky we were and it is quite possible by the time you read this, we could feel additional waves of WannaCry. Here are some quick solutions and things to think about:

Back up your crown jewels like it’s going out of style. If you did not back up your data this past weekend, whether offline or on the cloud (or both), you deserve a failing grade. Malicious actors have proof ransomware pays off. As long as there are people willing to pay, malicious actors will keep on putting out ransomware. The only way to stop this tactic is to eliminate the incentive. Losing one day’s worth of data is a whole lot less painful than your entire digital library. Over the long term, the costs of doing nothing are exceedingly higher than doing something, so find an option that keeps your data out of harm’s way. Backing up your data should become as regular and mundane as brushing your teeth (and you know what happens when you do not brush your teeth).

Have a recovery plan that can be activated in minimal time. Have clean images of operating systems and critical applications ready to be installed in a moment’s notice. Of course, this is under the assumption you have your data backed up and ready to follow. And by the way, if you have not tested your plan, you do not have a plan. If you decide not to test your plan, make it out of wood and knock on it for good luck. You may increase your chances of success.

Prepare for the Stone Age. We are actually very serious here. For anybody born before 1989, there is a pretty good chance you used a pencil and paper somewhat regularly while growing up. This may come as a shock to some, but for a good 5,000 years or so, we got through life without electricity and digital technologies. It was not pretty at times, but in a pinch, it works. Remember, your success depends on your ability to bend while others are breaking. If you are able to operate with “Stone Age technology” for 72 hours, you are ahead of the game. If we are all down for more than 72 hours, chances are we have a much bigger problem on our hands (like war).

Look before you cross the road (think before you click!). Would you cross a busy freeway of speeding cars going in both directions without looking? So why would you just click something out of curiosity or because you are too lazy to look where it could take you? Hover over a link and make sure the link goes to where it says it will go. Read the email closely (one of us received an email from “concast.com” this week). And if it feels wrong, just press delete. Do not become the next “phish” that gets hooked!

Do not wait for the dam to come apart before you start patching. Enterprises are notoriously slow at patching their systems. This is particularly true of small-to-medium businesses. If you cannot do this, team up with a managed service provider or managed security service provider. If you are not “patching and praying” on a regular basis, you are committing “sin” and will likely be punished for your misdeeds.

If you can afford it, seriously consider artificial intelligence, machine learning and cognitive computing. We are still early into the wide-spread commercialization of these offerings, but they are the way of the future. If you identify and stop—or even slow down—an attack before it ruins your day by using any one of these technologies, it is a win for your organization.

Putting all your eggs in one basket means they can all break at once. Sometimes, keeping things apart is a good idea. In our mad rush to connect EVERYTHING, perhaps we overlooked some basics. We really need to ask questions such as: Do I really want the sales department to have the ability to connect to our superadvanced R&D department? Logical and physical segmentation of network and data assets needs to be looked at in more depth as a viable strategy (and remember you can use the cloud in this strategy).  

Sharing is caring. The need for enhanced public/private cooperation will be critical in maintaining a knowledge base to track and counter future ransomware cyber threats. The new NIST Framework in conjunction with the Homeland Security Department's cyber-threat information-sharing program implemented as part of the 2016 Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act is a good basis to encourage more sharing of information threats. And the cybersecurity executive order from May 11 is a good step in the right direction.

Time to have a serious policy discussion on zero-day vulnerabilities and other exploits. Zero-day vulnerabilities and other exploits should be treated like neutron bombs able to run amok. Seriously. Note: We are all patriots first and understand our nation’s military and intelligence agencies require—need—the ability to take advantage of these exploits, but if we are to keep a cache of these weapons in a stockpile, they need to be protected like the launch codes. If one of the vulnerabilities gets out in the wild, patch it up at warp speed.

We offer these practical solutions to you in order to protect and secure what matters most to all of us. We dodged a serious bullet on Friday and by no means are we in the clear. Let this be a lesson to us because, by the time you read this, we may be feeling WannaCry Vol. 2.