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Where do cyber threats begin? What is the root of the issue and how can we eradicate the source of any risk? What does this look like when you’re a maturing startup compared to a global corporation? Thomas Parsons, Sr. Director of product management at Tenable Network Security here takes to Finance Monthly back to the basics and gives his thoughts on the current global cyber situation.

Ransomware had previously been considered just another piece of nuisance malware that largely targeted unsuspecting consumers. However, the recent uptick of new variations, and their drastic impact in restricting access to enterprise systems and data, has catapulted this threat firmly into the spotlight. Events in the last few months have established ransomware as one of the most impactful and persistent global cyber threats.

Ransomware on the global stage

Increasingly in recent years, we’ve seen a shift from hackers using ransomware to target individual users to much larger attacks on enterprises. Top of mind is WannaCry, which wormed its way into networks around the world and encrypted data, closely followed by ‘Petya’ and also ‘NotPetya.’

Ransomware operates by compromising a system, infecting it with malware and encrypting data using a private key, preventing users from accessing the system. Hackers then send a message demanding payment to provide the key and restore the user’s data. Weaponising ransomware with worm capabilities, i.e. EternalBlue, has given hackers the opportunity to maximize the damage as the malware spreads from system to system. When ransomware latches onto systems that contain valuable company data, the systems become inaccessible, effectively bringing business to a halt.

For any organisation, the breach of personal data can not only impact the bottom line, but it can also cause irreversible reputational damage.

To pay or not to pay

WannaCry and Petya/NotPetya represent the new normal of today’s sophisticated threat environment. And with ransomware now impacting the global community, organisations must grapple with whether to pay the ransom.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that an organisation, which has its data held hostage by cyber criminals, will get a decryption key by paying the ransom – after all you’re dealing with criminals.

Paying the ransom also further funds the criminals’ antics, validating the business model and encouraging repeat infections – a practice that doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run, except perhaps the criminals.

However, the debate as to whether to pay cyber ransom shouldn’t be the focus, given that these attacks can be preventable.

Rather than a sophisticated attack or zero-day exploit, ransomware often takes advantage of well-known software vulnerabilities that organisations have failed to patch or update. The truth is attackers would much rather gain entry to the network by exploiting a known, but unpatched vulnerability, or a phishing email, because these techniques have a much higher return on investment.

But patching isn’t always that simple. Security teams can't control everything, and while it has become increasingly easy to deploy changes into environments, there are some mission-critical systems that can’t be updated with a click of a mouse or a simple script. For those systems that can’t be taken offline without disrupting business operations, security teams must implement compensating controls and make proper, risk-based decisions to mitigate the threat.

Cyber 101: Back to the basics

If we’re to leave ransomware in the past, organisations must get back to the basics, focusing on the foundations of strong cybersecurity.

To start, organisations need to implement security controls that prevent untrusted or unknown applications from being installed, while not impeding end-user productivity. This means security teams should use application whitelisting, blacklisting, dynamic listing, real-time privilege elevation and application reputation.

Organisations should also consider adopting the principle of least privilege, which gives privilege to users according to job necessities. In the event of an accidental link click or attachment opening that attempts to execute an application requiring elevated privileges (such as encrypting a hard drive, network share or folder), the user privileges would not allow those actions to be performed, stopping the attack immediately.

Even more important is end-user security training and awareness, backed by a solid understanding of attack methods used to gain information from users. Educating users on how to spot a phishing email and the dangers of sharing personal information and installing software from unknown sources can benefit them both at work and home.

In the modern computing environment, which now spans cloud, on-premises, IoT and operational technology, continuous visibility into the vulnerability status of every asset is critical to understanding the business impact of ransomware attacks and to fundamentally improve how organisations think about cybersecurity.

Here is a simple mantra to help focus the mind - If you can’t patch it, then you must protect it. And if you can’t do either, then you should prepare for the consequences.

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