Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Trusted CI releases a new report on ransomware

As part of its ongoing efforts to support software assurance, Trusted CI has released a new report describing the current landscape of ransomware.

Ransomware has become a global problem, striking almost every sector that uses computers, from industry to academia to government.

Given that ransomware is a global problem, striking almost every sector that uses computers, from industry to academia to government, our report takes a detailed technical approach to understanding ransomware. Ransomware attacks affect the smallest businesses, the largest corporations, research labs, and have even shut down IT operations at entire universities.

We present a broad landscape of how ransomware can affect a computer system and suggest how the system designer and operator might prepare to recover from such an attack. In our report we are focused on detection, recovery, and resilience. As such, we are explicitly not discussing how the ransomware might enter a computer system. The assumption is that systems will be successfully attacked and rendered inoperative to some extent. Therefore, it is essential to have a recovery and continuity of operations strategy.

Some of the ransomware scenarios that we describe reflect attacks that are common and well understood. Many of these scenarios have active attacks in the wild. Other scenarios are less common and do not appear to have any active attacks. In many ways, these less common scenarios are the most interesting ones as they pose an opportunity to build defenses ahead of attacks. Such areas need more research into the possible threats and defenses against these threats.

We start with a discussion of the basic attack goals of ransomware and distinguish ransomware from purely malicious vandalism. We present a canonical model of a computing system, representing the key components of the system such as user processes, the file system, and the firmware. We also include representative external components such as database servers, storage servers, and backup systems. This system model then forms the basis of our discussion on specific attacks.

We then use the system model to methodically discuss ways in which ransomware can (and sometimes cannot) attack each component of the system that we identified. For each attack scenario, we describe how the system might be subverted, the ransom act, the impact on operations, difficulty of accomplishing the attack, the cost to recover, the ease of detection of the attack, and frequency in which the attack is found in the wild. We also describe strategies that could be used to detect these attacks and recover from them.

Based on our study, we present our major takeaway observations and best practices that can help make a system more resilient to attack and easier to recover after an attack. Our report is available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8140464.