Weighing Risk Against Benefits
Security boils down to measuring risk against anticipated benefits. “One of the fascinating things about risk is that low-level engineers know where the risks are, but they don’t necessarily tell anybody,” Waters says. As an example, he cites Operation Market Garden, a World War II Allied military effort (documented in the book and movie A Bridge Too Far) that was fatally hampered by poor radio communication. “People knew those radios weren’t going to work when they got over there,” Waters says. “They didn’t tell anybody because they didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Once a risk is identified, users and IT professionals must be committed to addressing it, with the support of executives. Across all departments and in all situations, calm person-to-person communication is always a reliable and effective security tool. “If we’re running around with our hair on fire all the time, they don’t want to talk to us,” Waters adds. “We want everybody to be able to talk with us and share their risks, so we know to prioritize and trust them.”
In a perfect world, security professionals would strive to create a risk-free environment. “We want it all down to zero,” Waters says. That’s not possible, however, because some degree of risk is inherent in every action an organization takes. “As challenging as it may seem, there are risks businesses are willing to accept,” Waters adds.
Too much caution blocks or degrades benefits, particularly when security mandates unnecessarily interfere with routine activities. Simply telling people what not to do is rarely effective, particularly if what they’re doing saves time and produces positive results. “We talk about Dropbox and things like that,” Waters says. “If your policies are too restrictive, people will find a way around them.”
The Danger of Giving in to Ransomware
Ransomware is like a thug with a gun: “Pay up, or your data gets it!”
Facing such a blunt demand, many organizations simply cave in and hand over whatever amount of money (usually in the form of bitcoin) is necessary to regain their data.
Problem solved? Not necessarily, says Michael Viscuso, co-founder and chief technology officer of endpoint security provider Carbon Black, who sees no easy way out of a ransomware attack. “It’s still surprising to me that people who have paid the ransom think that the game is over,” he says. “The reality is that the attacker has access to your system and is encrypting and decrypting your files whenever he wants to – and charging you every time.”
James Lyne, global head of security research at security technology company Sophos, notes that many ransomware attackers hide code within decrypted data, allowing them to reinfect the host at a future date. “Because if you’ll pay once, you’ll pay twice,” he explains.
Lyne also warns about the emerging threat of “shredware,” malware that encrypts data without requesting a ransom, effectively destroying it. “I bring that up because I’ve had a lot of board advisory meetings recently where people have said, ‘Well surely, we’ll just keep a fund, and if our data is encrypted, we will just pay the cybercriminals,’” he says.
Instead, organizations can take steps to defend themselves against ransomware. These steps include:
Effective backups: IT staff can save themselves trouble and money by implementing regular backup practices to an external location such as a backup service. In the event of a ransomware infection, backup data can get organizations back on their feet quickly.
User training: Most infections are the result of users clicking on links or attachments that are connected to malicious payloads. IT teams can avoid these pitfalls by training users to look out for them.
Deployment of security solutions: Measures such as anti-malware, firewalls and email filters can help detect ransomware and prevent infections.
Meet the Evil Entrepreneurs
In much the same way that organizations boost their results through ambition and innovation, cybercriminals also are improving the way they operate. “The bad guys are entrepreneurial,” says Martin Roesch, vice president and chief architect of the Cisco Security Business Group.
Most successful cybercriminals are part of large and well-structured technology organizations. “There’s a team of people setting up infrastructure and hosting facilities; there’s a team of people doing vulnerability research; there’s a team of people doing extraction of data; there’s a team of people building ransomware; there’s a team of people delivering ransomware; there’s a team of people doing vulnerability assessment on the internet; there’s a team of people figuring out how to bypass spam filters,” says Michael Viscuso, co-founder and CTO of Carbon Black.
Roesch says organizations have found it “very difficult to respond and be effective against the kind of threat environment that we face today,” but says security experts within Cisco have specifically targeted cybercrime organizations and achieved some success in shutting them down.
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