Paying a malware ransom is bad, but telling people never to do it is unhelpful advice

Posted by   Martijn Grooten on   Apr 26, 2016

I'm not usually one to spread panic about security issues, but in the case of the current ransomware plague, I believe that at the very least a sense of great concern is justified. And the threat is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

While there are certainly many things we can do to significantly reduce the risk of us getting infected — from applying all necessary patches and keeping offline backups, to running software that alerts us when files are suddenly being modified en masse — ultimately, ransomware does what we all should be doing: encrypting our files. The subtle but essential difference is that it does so with a key we don't have.

One reason why ransomware is so successful is that the ransom demanded is usually only a few hundred dollars — affordable to most people (ransomware tends to target users in Western countries) and often cheaper than the (perceived) value of the data that would otherwise be lost. However, security experts regularly tell affected individuals and organizations never to pay the ransom.

I think this is unhelpful advice.

For sure, paying the ransom should always be the last resort. We should help victims, and the jack-of-all-trades sysadmins who are likely going to assist them, find other ways to recover the data. Maybe backups have been kept. Maybe this particular ransomware is one for which a decryption tool is available. And maybe losing the data — which could also have happened because of a physical failure of the hard drive — is an expensive but valuable lesson on the importance of keeping backups.

But sometimes, none of this helps and the only sensible business decision left is to pay the criminals, much as it is bad and much as there is never a 100% guarantee that this will work. Crooks will be crooks, after all.

Of course, if everyone followed the advice never to pay a ransom, ransomware authors would come to find that it wasn't worth their effort, and the threat would eventually disappear. But this wouldn't happen instantly, and it really would depend on almost everyone not paying the ransom.

And if security experts suddenly had the power to make everyone follow their advice, maybe we should just tell people to patch instead.

locky_16mar.png

twitter.png
fb.png
linkedin.png
hackernews.png
reddit.png

 

Latest posts:

New paper: LokiBot: dissecting the C&C panel deployments

First advertised as an information stealer and keylogger when it appeared in underground forums in 2015, LokiBot has added various capabilities over the years and has affected many users worldwide. In a new paper researcher Aditya Sood analyses the…

VB2019 presentation: Building secure sharing systems that treat humans as features not bugs

In a presentation at VB2019 in London, Virtru's Andrea Limbago described how, by exploring data sharing challenges through a socio-technical lens, it is possible to make significant gains toward the secure sharing systems and processes that are vital…

VB2019 presentation: Attor: spy platform with curious GSM fingerprinting

Attor is a newly discovered cyber-espionage platform, use of which dates back to at least 2014 and which focuses on diplomatic missions and governmental institutions. Details of Attor were presented at VB2019 in London by ESET researcher Zuzana…

Why we encourage newcomers and seasoned presenters alike to submit a paper for VB2020

With the call for papers for VB2020 currently open, we explain why, whether you've never presented before or you're a conference circuit veteran, if you have some interesting research to share with the community we want to hear from you!

VB2019 paper: The cake is a lie! Uncovering the secret world of malware-like cheats in video games

At VB2019 in London, Kaspersky researcher Santiago Pontiroli presented a paper on the growing illegal economy around video game cheats and its parallels with the malware industry. Today we publish both Santiago's paper and the recording of his…

We have placed cookies on your device in order to improve the functionality of this site, as outlined in our cookies policy. However, you may delete and block all cookies from this site and your use of the site will be unaffected. By continuing to browse this site, you are agreeing to Virus Bulletin's use of data as outlined in our privacy policy.