Preventing a ransomware attack with intelligence: Strategies for CISOs

Bad news first: Ransomware isn’t going anywhere.

The good news? The right intelligence can help organizations dramatically reduce risk surrounding a cyber extortion event.

In fact, when organizations are armed with intelligence that’s timely, relevant, and actionable, they can bolster their own cyber defense measures and even prevent a ransomware attack from occurring in the first place.

Knowledge is power

More good news: We know how ransomware “gangs” work and, for the most part, what they’re after.

Ransomware is opportunistic and the barriers to entry for operators are relatively low as the tools, infrastructure, and access that enables these attacks have proliferated across various online illicit communities through the ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) model. Ransomware affiliates can rent the malware and be paid a commission from the victim’s extortion fee.

Initial access brokers—i.e. threat actors who sell ransomware operators and affiliates access into victim networks—are constantly scanning the internet for vulnerable systems. Leaked credentials from breaches and other cyber incidents can lead to brute force or credential stuffing attacks. Employees need to constantly be aware of increasingly sophisticated social engineering schemes. Threat actors can use any of these mechanisms to breach systems, escalate privileges, move laterally, and ideally take actions on objectives, dropping that malware on a victim’s network and encrypting all of their files.

Intelligence along the pre-attack chain

Previously I wrote about the role of detection, isolation, mitigation, and negotiation in the event of a ransomware attack. Having this level of preparedness is essential today.

But one of the most effective ways to stop a ransomware attack is to deny them access in the first place; without access, there is no attack. The adversary only needs one route of access, and yet the defender has to be aware and prevent all entry points into a network. Various types of intelligence can illuminate risk across the pre-attack chain—and help organizations monitor and defend their attack surfaces before they’re targeted by attackers.

Vulnerability intelligence

The best vulnerability intelligence should be robust and actionable. For instance, with vulnerability intelligence that includes exploit availability, attack type, impact, disclosure patterns, and other characteristics, vulnerability management teams predict the likelihood that a vulnerability could be used in a ransomware attack.

With this information in hand, vulnerability management teams, who are often under-resourced, can prioritize patching and preemptively defend against vulnerabilities that could lead to a ransomware attack.

Threat intelligence

Having a deep and active understanding of the illicit online communities where ransomware groups operate can also help inform methodology, and prevent compromise. Organizations must be able to monitor for, and be alerted to, stolen login credentials before they reach criminal actors. This intelligence can mitigate account takeover and break the chain leading to brute force or credential stuffing attacks.

Technical intelligence

When cyber threat actors successfully infiltrate your network, the subsequent attack is not always immediate; sometimes, they will install tools that can help them further invade and seek access to the most valuable data. Technical intelligence helps security teams detect indicators of compromise, or IOCs, and the presence of Cobalt Strike beacons, which can unknowingly be present in your systems and later help a ransomer carry out an attack.

Prevention through preparedness

In order to help employees and executives understand various ransomware-related risks, organizations should seek to implement tabletop exercises designed by companies with expertise preparing for, and responding to, a ransomware event. These simulated scenarios should cover how to spot (and report) social engineering schemes like phishing attacks, which lure employees to click on links or interact with harmful attachments that could allow ransomware malware to be deployed on company devices.

By spending time building out and rehearsing a response plan prior to an attack scenario, your team will be equipped with informed decision-making during a ransomware-related emergency. But rest assured: It’s best to have the right intelligence at-hand, including the data, expert insights, and tools that can help to prevent an attack in the first place and keep your organization running without interruption.

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