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The Internet Society has been closely monitoring the ransomware cyber-attacks that have been occurring over the last couple of days. The malware, which has gone by multiple names, including WannaCry, WannaDecryptor, and WannaCrypt, exploits a flaw in Microsoft Windows that was first reportedly discovered by the National Security Agency (NSA). A group of hackers leaked the code for exploiting this vulnerability earlier this year, and a fix or patch was available as far back as March 2017. Since Friday, 200,000 computers in 150 countries have been compromised using this exploit. The numbers are expected to grow exponentially as people settle back into their work routines and regular use of computer systems this week. As part of our continuing work in online trust and security, there are some key takeaways from this incident that we want to leave with our community.

Firstly, we want to highlight the extremely negative effects which government stockpiling of vulnerabilities and zero day attacks has on the overall security of the Internet. With over 60 countries known to be developing growing arsenals of cyber weapons, and with many of these exploits leaking into the public domain, the potential for widespread damage is a massive cause for concern. The impact is not only economic in terms of financial loss, but social in terms of how it impacts end user trust, and most importantly human in terms of loss of life (especially given that ransomware attacks have been focusing on hospitals). And with critical infrastructure like power plants, dams, and transportation systems being targeted in nation state cyber offensives, the threat to human life increases exponentially.

Secondly, it would appear that some hospitals are easy targets for ransomware attackers. Their systems house data that is critical to patient care and management, and many of these institutions don’t have the IT resources to support critical process areas like vulnerability management, patch management, business continuity management, etc. In general, hospitals are also now adapting to digital realities and a number of them are playing catchup with regards to cyber readiness. However, the aforementioned challenges are not unique to hospitals, and are faced by many small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and in several instances, large corporations. Individual users are also targeted based on their generally poor Internet hygiene or lack of security awareness.

We want to take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of good online security practices when accessing the Internet. So here are 6 basic tips for protecting against ransomware:

1. Employ strong, multi-layered endpoint security – Using endpoint security that can protect web browsing, control outbound traffic, protect system settings, proactively stop phishing attacks and continuously monitor for anomalous system behavior will allow for better protection of servers, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.

2. Maintain regular backups of your critical data – Backups can help you to protect your data from more than just ransomware. Other risk events such as malware, theft, fire, flood or accidental deletion can all render your data unavailable. Be certain to encrypt your backed-up data so it can be effectively restored. Backups should also be stored at an offsite location isolated from the local network.

3. Do not open unsolicited emails or messages from unknown senders – Many ransomware variants are distributed through phishing attacks or email attachments. Increased mindfulness when handling ‘suspect’ emails can be effective in combating ransomware.

4. Patch your systems regularly – Patching your systems for vulnerabilities reduces the opportunities for hackers to infect you with ransomware. The fact that a patch was available for the WannaCrypt vulnerability since March highlights the somewhat lax attitude by organizations and individuals to keeping their system patches up to date. That being said, patch management is a complex activity and can impact the availability of key systems. Hence, thorough testing must be conducted to avoid unplanned downtime.

5. Disable macros if possible – Many forms of ransomware are distributed in Microsoft Office documents that attempt to trick users into enabling macros. There are a number of tools available that can limit to functionality of macros my preventing them from being enabled on files downloaded from the Internet.

6. Be aware and vigilant – For individuals, don’t assume that only techies need to know about all the recent malware and trends in online attacks. Subscribe to mailing lists that provide information on common vulnerabilities and exposures. In the case of organizations, developing an information security awareness program is an integral part of improving overall security posture.

Finally, we want to touch on the important work being done by the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), the Internet Society’s newest initiative. The OTA’s mission is to enhance online trust, user empowerment and innovation through convening multi-stakeholder initiatives, developing and promoting best practices, ethical privacy practices and data stewardship. With regards to preventing ransomware attacks, OTA has developed a number of industry best practices that address key threat areas such as email authentication and incident response. These are as follows:

Email Authentication: https://otalliance.org/resources/email-security

Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC): https://otalliance.org/dmarc

Cyber Incident & Breach Response: https://otalliance.org/resources/cyber-incident-breach-response

Additional OTA best practices, resources and guidance to help enhance online safety, data security, privacy and brand protection can be found here.

The Spam Toolkit developed by the Internet Society also provides some guidance on addressing online threats.

The Internet Society is committed to the enhancement of online trust, and our work along this vein spans multiple areas. Our goal is to continue to provide our individual members, organizational members, chapters, partners, and other constituents with timely and relevant information and resources that equip and empower them to act.


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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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