From pirates to mobsters to petty criminals, kidnapping for ransom is nothing new. We’re all familiar with the process – a person is abducted, the abductor demands a ransom, the ransom is paid, and then the person is released.
Now this age-old form of extortion has evolved into the technological world as ransomware.
Ransomware criminals employ the same principles as their predecessors but with a twist: the kidnappee is data.
The kidnapper in this scenario is crypto ransomware, a malware variant programmed to encrypt and lock data. After a company’s records are locked, the infected computer displays a note that demands ransom.
The perpetrator will only unlock the files once the ransom has been paid in full.
Ransomware in Healthcare
The healthcare industry in particular has been struck by a recent spate of ransomware attacks.
With few exceptions, the companies are reluctant to release specific details, leaving the investigating to the FBI.
UMASS Memorial Medical Center
An employee at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester opened an email laced with ransomware last fall, resulting in dozens of locked hospital files on several different computers.
A ransom note was promptly displayed on the hospital monitors.
The hospital chose not to pay ransom, removing all of the encrypted files instead.
Security professionals later restored the system with backup files.
In response, Chief Information Security Officer Bruce Forman outlines his plan to install advanced, persistent threat software that will identify malware based on its behavior.
Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center
On February 5, 2016, hackers locked patient files at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center and demanded ransom for access.
The hospital opted to shell out 40 bitcoins – approximately $17,000 – for the encryption key before calling the FBI.
The hospital was off-line over a week.
Emergency room systems, and computers used for CT scans, lab work and pharmacy needs were were all affected by the attack.
Some 911 patients were even sent to other hospitals.
The International Business Times later reported that a group of Turkish hackers had claimed responsibility for the attack via the text-sharing site Pastebin, threatening more attacks as long as the U.S. supports Kurdish rebels.
The claim is unverified however.
Prime Healthcare Management
The Los Angeles Times reported ransomware attacks on March 27, 2016 at two Prime Healthcare Management, Inc. hospitals: Chino Valley Medical Center in Chino, CA, and Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville.
Spokesperson Fred Ortega said the attacks were “immediately addressed and contained,” and no ransom was paid.
The FBI is still investigating.
A third Prime Healthcare facility, the 306-bed Alvarado Hospital in San Diego, was also infected by a crypto virus on March 31, 2016.
On March 28, 2016 Columbus, MD based provider MedStar Health shut down its database and email after a viral attack.
The provider operates 10 various hospitals, serves hundreds of thousands of patients, and has over 30,000 employees.
MedStar Health claims no information was stolen, and hasn’t labeled the culprit as ransomware, but The Washington Post reported they received a screen shot of a ransom demand for 45 bitcoins – or roughly $19,000 – from a MedStar employee.
The shutdown forced staff to go old-fashioned, relying on paper charts and records. Appointments and surgeries were also delayed.
Other healthcare organizations targeted by ransomware attacks since February, 2016 include the Los Angeles Health Department, Ottawa Hospital in Canada, Methodist Hospital in Henderson, Kentucky, and King’s Daughter’s Health in Madison, Indiana.
In each case, spokespeople reported the systems were shut down, but later restored with back-up files.
Why is healthcare a target?
In general, ransomware attacks are becoming more prominent because they are successful.
In 2012, a server of 5,700 computers was locked – all on the same day according to United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
Symantec analyzed the data and determined 2.9% of the users with locked computers had paid an average ransom of $200 per computer.
While this may be true of ransomware overall, many healthcare organizations claim they actually aren’t paying ransoms.
But some are.
Medical professionals rely on computer access for everything, from critical patient information like allergies and lab results to operating schedules.
Locking access to records can literally be a life or death situation.
Healthcare organizations may be targets not because of their industry, but because of the types of applications they use according to Craig Williams of Talos Research in Arstechnica Report.
He suspects ransomware perpetrators scan the internet for vulnerable servers, finding many in the healthcare trade.
The increase in crypto virus attacks is also caused by the antiquated security systems employed by many companies according to Zach Forsyth at Comodo.
Healthcare organizations are relatively new to the digital game, and their security systems lack the maturity of those in the financial and technology industries.
Criminal attacks on healthcare organizations increased 100 percent between 2009 and 2013 according to the Ponemon Institute.
The trend of attacks against the vulnerable healthcare industry shows no signs of slowing. In fact, ransomware is emerging as a popular crime , states Ben Desjardin’s post on Radware.
How do ransomware attacks happen?
Some ransomware attacks gain access through phishing, or luring a user to click on a contaminated email or link. Vulnerable servers can also be targeted remotely.
A recent ransomware campaign against the healthcare industry in March, 2016 was under the scope of Cisco Talos Research.
Perpetrators used the open source tool JexBoss to gain traction in a server. Upon access, a ransomware variant named SamSam encrypyted multiple Window systems.
Another malware distribution method, Ransom as a Service (RaaS), emerged in 2015.
Criminals download the ransomware app builder and customize it according to the Microsoft Malware Protection Center.
Ransom MLIS/Samas also emerged early in 2016, with criminals using a penetration testing attack server that searches to exploit vulnerable networks, and uses a publicly available tool called reGeorg for tunneling.
MSPs and VARs Beware!
It’s not just healthcare providers who should worry about their records being locked. Managed Service Providers and Value Added Re-sellers that service the healthcare industry are also at risk.
HIPAA Regulations for IT Compliance instruct that any business involved in the creation, maintenance or monitoring of electronic protected health information (ePHI) is subject to the Security Rules of HIPAA.
Compliance requires that the confidentiality and integrity of ePHIs remain intact.
Because ransomware locks files rather breaching their integrity, the jury is currently out on whether HIPAA-affected organizations have to report crypto virus attacks to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights.
It’s possible that attackers have determined ransomware victims might pay up if they can be assured the data has not been stolen, and therefore they may not have to report the breach.
What can you do?
A simple solution is to back up your files. If you can access what a criminal has encrypted, you can continue to do business.
Train your employees to never click on suspicious emails or links. In addition, a strong password policy should be implemented throughout the company.
Third Tier produced a ransomware protection kit they’ll mail to you in return for a donation that supports females who want to work in the IT field.
Other remedies include installing a multi-tier defense architecture that checks software multiple times for vulnerabilities.
Web scanning can stop your system from accessing malicious sites as well.
Whitelisting is an effective tool that only allows specific, approved programs to run.
Employees can be granted a “least privilege user account,” which means they are not given administrative privileges to their computers.
Ransomware Prevention can also include blocking malicious TOR IP addresses, and testing restores.
Once your security system is set up, do not ignore it – maintain it. The Red Hat-supported JBoss server application was reported vulnerable in 2007 according to The HIPAA Journal.
A patch to correct the vulnerability has existed for almost ten years, and had it been applied, a number of ransomware attacks could have been prevented.
People tend to assume that hackers or other malicious actors are behind the security incidents and data breaches we hear about in the news.
While it’s true – thousands of criminals try to steal data every day – it’s also true that many security incidents are caused by employees.
Employees are the number-one cause of security incidents in the retail and consumer industries, according to the results of the Global State of Information Security Survey (GSISS) 2016 from PwC.
The survey, conducted from May to June 2015, is comprised of responses from more than 10,000 executives of security practices from 127 countries.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that the chart applies to security incidents and not data breaches. The terms are slightly different:
- Security incident – An event that violates a security policy or otherwise puts an asset (such as customer data) at risk. This is a general term and can include network scans, malware infections, or a breach of customer data.
- Data breach – A confirmed disclosure of sensitive data to an unauthorized party.
The top 5 sources of security incidents
Source #1. Employees
Current employees were reported as the greatest perpetrators of security incidents in the retail and consumer industries by those surveyed. The number was 30%, down 12% from 2014.
Employees pose both an intentional and accidental security risk. They have an insider advantage if they choose to steal data. But they often compromise their company’s cybersecurity unknowingly.
Many retail and consumer industry cyber-attacks are initiated when an employee opens an email sent from a villainous source, who tries to trick the recipient into providing personal information, such as logins and passwords. The act is called spear-phishing, and it arrives as an email that appears to be sent from someone an employee knows.
When the employee opens an attachment, or clicks on a link embedded in the email, associated malware instigates a cyber-attack. When high-level employees are targeted by this technique it is sometimes called “whaling.”
Spear-phishing has been the point of entry for cyber-attacks on Anthem and Sony. Stolen data included personal health information, employee social security numbers, and thousands of leaked internal documents.
A 2012 paper by Trend Micro Incorporated found that spear-phishing was involved in 91% of targeted attacks.
Careless or poorly trained?
In 2013 Deloitte reported that up to 90% of user passwords were easily hackable. Splashdata’s 2015 “Worst Password List,” comprised of the 25 most common passwords on the internet, are easily guessable, and therefore highly vulnerable. They include “123456,” “baseball,” and “password.”
Employees of retail and consumer organizations often put their company’s data at risk by performing work tasks on their own personal devices, often accessed through unsecure WIFI. They might send work documents to personal email accounts, bypassing security precautions initiated by their employers.
A perceived decrease in retail and consumer employee security incidents could be due to increased employee training. In addition, more companies are paying vigilance to firewalls, and many businesses require employees to change their passwords on a regular basis.
Source #2. Former Employees
Former employees are ranked 2nd in the GSISS for security incidents in retail and consumer organizations. Down to 26% in 2015 from 30% in 2014, its share fell 13%.
If employment ends on unhappy terms, it’s easy to imagine an employee with inside information, a grudge to bear, and a lack of morality could be a danger to the company’s security.
A 2009 survey by the Poneman Institute found that 59% of ex-employees surveyed claimed to have taken company data with them when they left their position.
The phenomenon is not limited to retail organizations.
In January 2015 a former employee of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy (DOE) was charged with sending 80 spear-phishing emails to DOE employees seeking sensitive information in exchange for money from a foreign embassy. He had been terminated by the NRC in 2010.
A former employee of the U.S. Embassy in London was charged in August 2015 with seven counts of computer hacking to extort, one count of wire fraud and nine counts of cyber-stalking.
Those surveyed could be responding to increased company diligence to eliminate logins and passwords of employees immediately upon their termination. Companies are also improving their data encryption, and many have dedicated IT security personnel that help prevent former employees from taking information with them when they leave.
Source #3. Service Providers, Consultants, Contractors
The survey respondents reported a 21% increase, from 19% to 23%, in retail security incidents caused by current service providers, consultants, and contractors, also known as third parties.
Third party contractors include any outside organization hired by a company. Third parties run the gamut from lawyers, to electricity providers, to security providers.
As reported by Krebs on Security, the 2013 Target heist that compromised the credit and debit accounts of millions of people was orchestrated through network credentials stolen from one of their Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Contractors.
Cloud security risks can also rise when a retailer uses a third party vendor, since the retailer rarely knows the veracity of the vendor’s employees and partners.
Source #4. Hackers
The GSISS attributes 21% of retail security incidents to hackers in 2015, up from 20% in 2014.
Hackers perpetrate direct attacks. Their goals are as numerous as they are varied. They can be nation-states, lone wolves, and hacktivists, who break into databases on what they see as benevolent missions.
Hackers break into databases to steal personal identities and financial information as an act of theft. Most hacking is done for profit, but some people hack for the personal challenge of breaking into systems that are thought to be secure.
The collective “Anonymous” hacks to fight perceived internet censorship. Hackers might have political motivations, and target electrical grids or other civic infrastructure.
In 2015, 21.5 million people had information stolen from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management by hackers. The New York Times reported the suspect is China, but it is unknown whether the crime was committed by the government or individuals.
Hackers also target intellectual property, or business secrets. As various segments of government and corporations have become more sophisticated in their ability to fend off cyber-attacks, hackers have sought to invade industries with less sophisticated cyber defenses.
In 2014 hackers compromised the point of sale system at Home Depot with custom built malware that breached the integrity of 56 million unique payment cards. It’s estimated the cost to Home Depot will be approximately $62 million.
In addition to retail and consumer firms, U.S. law firms have suffered increased hacker attacks in the United States because they are in possession of potentially lucrative information, and lag other professions in cyber security.
In a recent survey reported by Legal Tech News, less than half the law firms surveyed had intrusion detection systems, email encryption on all their services, or logs of employees who accessed public health information.
Source #5. Organized Crime
Those surveyed identified a minor increase, from to 18% in 2015 from 17% in 2014, of retail and consumer organization security incidents by organized crime, the final group identified in the GSISS report.
According to the report, some in the financial industry believe that increasingly, cybercrime is a collaborative effort between foreign nation states and organized crime.
The FBI reports a sampling of the organized criminal threats to the U.S. include groups from Africa who perpetrate financial schemes, Russian mobsters who moved to the U.S. after the collapse of the USSR, and Asian groups including the Japanese Boryokudan.
A white paper written by The RAND Corporation notes that black markets where data is sold are growing in complexity and size, and that hackers are morphing from random individuals to sophisticated, financially driven groups, often associated with traditional crime groups such as mafias and drug cartels.
The dangers are real, and the smart money is on those who exercise continuous vigilance on the cyberfront.
“Our clients’ security needs are ever changing in today’s world of cybercrime. With the influx of remote workers, outsourced services and client access, KIT’s Clients needed a solid, robust, but yet easy to maintain security platform that will continue to evolve with technology and business needs. Calyptix Security brings all this and more to table,” said Jim Kubicek, President & COO, Kubicek Information Technologies.
According to a study by NCSA Cyber Security, only 4% of Americans say they understand firewalls “completely”, while more than 44% don’t understand firewalls at all – or know if they have one enabled on their PC. So for those of you who feel a little unsure – below is a brief overview of why you might need a firewall.
If your PC is connected to the Internet, you are a potential target to an array of cyber threats, such as hackers, keyloggers, and Trojans that attack through unpatched security holes. This means that if you, like most people shop and bank online, are vulnerable to identity theft and other malicious attacks.
A firewall works as a barrier, or a shield, between your PC and cyber space. When you are connected to the Internet, you are constantly sending and receiving information in small units called packets. The firewall filters these packets to see if they meet certain criteria set by a series of rules, and thereafter blocks or allows the data. This way, hackers cannot get inside and steal information such as bank account numbers and passwords from you.
Basic firewalls such as the one included in Windows, only monitor incoming traffic by default. This may give you a false sense of security. Keep in mind, outgoing traffic, with your credit card information, bank accounts, and social security number is not protected. A good firewall will monitor traffic in both directions. That is, both your incoming data and your outgoing data, keeping your private information safe. In addition to preventing unauthorized access to your PC, it also makes your PC invisible when you’re online, helping prevent attempted intrusions in the first place.
Most sophisticated firewalls also include a feature that continuously updates the list of known good and known malicious applications. This way, the amount of questions relating to Internet access is minimized and your computer protection is always up-to-date.
Although a firewall provides critical protection to keep your PC safe from unauthorized access, it cannot remove malware from a system that has already been infected. Therefore, a firewall should be used in conjunction with other proactive measures, such as anti-malware software, to strengthen your resistance to attacks.