Data is fast becoming a highly sought-after commodity and the lifeblood of businesses and individuals alike. As more businesses transition to the digital world, there’s always the risk of cyberattacks stealing their data. One such attack is ransomware. But unlike other well-documented malware, a ransomware attack is by far the most dangerous to deal with.
To explain why that’s the case, we must first explain what ransomware is and how to protect against it. This article will do just that, so sit back and let’s explore the world of one of the most devastating malware to have ever existed.
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What Is Ransomware?
Ransomware is malicious software (malware) that encrypts data and prevents users from using their devices, rendering both inaccessible. The only action victims can do is stare at the ransom demand displayed on their screens, choosing or choosing not to pay the ransom. That means that sending a ransom demand is precisely the aim of a ransomware attack.
The encryption factor of ransomware attacks makes the malware difficult to deal with. Not only that, but it’s even more difficult to detect potential ransomware files hiding on your operating system. These two, along with the ability to steal important files and sensitive information, make ransomware an especially devastating malware.
But to truly understand why, we must explain how a ransomware infection works.
How Ransomware Works
We can explain how ransomware works in a few simple steps. However, dealing with ransomware is anything but simple.
Step 1: Infection
In addition to cutting-edge encryption, ransomware employs deception tactics to infiltrate operating systems and compromise security. Although ransomware infections are numerous, they are most often carried out through email attachments.
An unsuspecting user will receive a phishing email with a malicious file containing ransomware or other forward-acting malware. These emails are well disguised and often impersonate people close to the victim, such as their boss, a coworker, a family member, or their bank. This is why phishing is so closely tied to ransomware to target systems and users.
Alternatively, ransomware infections could occur due to software exploits, such as an operating system vulnerability. Since the goal in the first step is to infect the victim’s operating system, the malware might or might not initiate its insidious work after infection. In some cases, the malware will sit idly, patiently waiting for its master to give the initiation command.
Step 2: Encryption
The hacker will bide their time and choose when to initiate the second step, which is encrypting the victim’s device and OS. Ransomware variants employ vastly different encryption methods; some encrypt bits of data, while others encrypt the entire system. Encryption renders the data inaccessible and unusable, rendering it useless. The victim cannot decrypt their data without a decryption key, which comes at a price.
The primary objective in the second step is to deny the victim access to their own data, forcing them to pay the ransom demand.
Step 3: Ransom Demand
Upon encryption, the hacker will display a ransom note on the victim’s device screen. The note will state the steps the victim must take to get their data back. Otherwise, they risk losing it and even the hackers exposing it on the free web.
The ransom demands are typically made in cryptocurrencies, with the most common currencies including Bitcoin, Monero, and Ethereum. However, the hackers can demand the ransom payment in any digital or fiat currency. The reason why these demands are typically made in cryptocurrency is the anonymity factor.
Step 4: Decryption
If the victim chooses to comply with the ransomware demands, they can pay the ransom, and the cybercriminals will provide them with the decryption key necessary to unlock their data and operating system. The decryption key is truly the only way to unlock your data, therefore holding immense leverage.
However, it’s important to mention that paying the ransom doesn’t guarantee anything. The hackers can still deny the victim the means to break the encryption despite getting their money. With that said, there’s a saying, “Honor among thieves,” or was it the opposite? Regardless, you’re at the mercy of the cybercriminals should you fall victim to one such attack.
5 Tips to Protect Against Ransomware
So, how do you protect against ransomware attacks? Here are a few tips to help you do that:
- Enhance Security: Whether it’s email or any other vector of attack, enhancing existing cybersecurity measures and introducing new protection methods is one of the best ways to protect against ransomware. For email, acquire anti-spam protection and email filtering, capable of detecting suspicious emails and outright deleting them before reaching your inbox. Certain solutions can also detect harmful links and fake websites, drastically reducing the chance of ransomware and similar online threats.
- Keep Software Up To Date: We mentioned that hackers will look at software exploits to infect your system with ransomware. It’s well-documented that hackers actively look to compromise software by exploiting potential security loopholes. On the other hand, some software updates aim to prevent that. So, always update your software with the latest security patches to enhance your anti-ransomware protection.
- Keep Backup Copies of Your Data: Despite your best efforts, certain ransomware variants are impossible to defend against. In that case, the only viable protection solution is to recover your data through backups. That way, you are denying the cybercriminals the leverage they have over you – your data! Backups allow you to store important files and keep copies of said files on physical mediums (hard drives, USB, etc.) and the cloud. Spread your copies to both the cloud and on-site to give yourself plenty of recovery options.
- Educate Your Employees: Some cybersecurity experts say education is the best way to protect against ransomware and other malware. And that certainly is true. Education holds immense power in the fight against cybercrime. If you and your employees are educated on ransomware and how it manages to infect devices and systems, you’re better equipped to prevent infection in the first place.
- Employ Security Solutions: Lastly, you can always leave protection to certified experts and security solutions specializing in anti-ransomware protection. These solutions employ machine learning and artificial intelligence to detect the malicious software. With a host of additional features and capabilities, employing third-party security solutions is another excellent way to protect against ransomware.
As cybercrime continues to evolve, we’re seeing the devastating power of ransomware firsthand. Moreover, ransomware attacks are becoming more sophisticated and damaging by the day, forcing businesses and individuals to remain proactively vigilant at all times.
However, there are ways to protect against ransomware that work even for individuals and small businesses. Being educated on the dangers, keeping backup copies, updating software, enhancing security, and employing the best the cybersecurity industry has to offer are some ways to escape the devastating clutches of ransomware.