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.




Latest posts:

Standalone product test: FireEye Endpoint

Virus Bulletin ran a standalone test on FireEye's Endpoint Security solution.

VB2017 video: Consequences of bad security in health care

Jelena Milosevic, a nurse with a passion for IT security, is uniquely placed to witness poor security practices in the health care sector, and to fully understand the consequences. Today, we publish the recording of a presentation given by Jelena at…

Vulnerabilities play only a tiny role in the security risks that come with mobile phones

Both bad news (all devices were pwnd) and good news (pwning is increasingly difficult) came from the most recent mobile Pwn2Own competition. But the practical security risks that come with using mobile phones have little to do with vulnerabilities.

VB2017 paper: The (testing) world turned upside down

At VB2017 in Madrid, industry veteran and ESET Senior Research Fellow David Harley presented a paper on the state of security software testing. Today we publish David's paper in both HTML and PDF format.

VB2017 video: Turning Trickbot: decoding an encrypted command-and-control channel

Trickbot, a banking trojan which appeared this year, seems to be a new, more modular, and more extensible malware descendant of the notorious Dyre botnet trojan. At VB2017, Symantec researcher Andrew Brandt presented a walkthrough of a typical…