How Can You Protect Yourself From Ransomware?

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In 2015, online criminals used ransomware attacks to extort a mere $50M from victims. By the end of 2016, the FBI projects that ransomware gangsters will reap a cool billion dollars. The crooks are casting a wide net, targeting consumers and businesses alike.

In the future, perhaps ransomware will merely ask for money to prevent the bad guys from changing data in a random document to embarrass a person or compromise a legal request. Sounds like a nasty threat, but what can you do to protect yourself from ransomware?

What is ransomware?

We know that ransomware is one of the fastest growing cybersecurity threats in the world, but what exactly is ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware that upon infecting a device, blocks access to it or to some or all of the information stored on it. In order to unlock either the device or the data, the user is required to pay a ransom, usually in widely used e-currency. The term ransomware covers mainly two types of malware: so-called Windows blockers (they block the operating system or browser with a pop-up window) and encryption ransomware. The term also includes some of Trojan-Downloaders, namely those that tend to download encryption ransomware upon infection of machine. Nowadays, encryption ransomware is widely regarded as synonymous with ransomware.

Data from Kaspersky Lab recent report

The number of users encountering ransomware, 2015’s data from Symantec’s recent report

In the graph above, you can see that the anti-malware industry, including the FBI and similar organizations, agree that ransomware threats will unfortunately continue to become more and more prevalent, especially for both large and small businesses.

It is always better to stop a ransomware attack as early as possible. Ideally, it should be stopped at the desktop, before the ransomware has a chance to encrypt any files. So, it is important to understand the threat and use data protection solutions that will enable a security team to respond quickly to a ransomware attack, without disrupting the workflow to the desktop and networking teams, as well as users on the network. This is applicable not only to corporate users, but consumer users as well.

Fortunately, Acronis offers a ransomware protection solution that is helping both corporate and consumer users to fight ransomware effectively. Our solution can be used as a part of Acronis consumer (and later on, corporate) products or you can pair these products with the anti-malware solution of your choice.

Acronis Active Protection™: an effective answer to ransomware threats

Acronis Active Protection is an advanced technology for Windows operating systems. Acronis has plans to expand it to cover Android and other operation systems, but at this point, most ransomware attacks target Windows systems. Windows systems currently require less research and effort for cybercriminals to create ransom-demanding malware.

Acronis Active Protection’s patent-pending technology is also the foundation of a very solid data protection approach. It can be expanded in a variety of ways. But first, let’s see the basics of how it works, and why Acronis Active Protection should be the first tool in your ransomware protection arsenal.

The heuristic ransomware detection approach

At the heart of Acronis Active Protection lies a heuristic approach that you may have heard of in relation to the anti-malware industry. The heuristic detection approach is much more modern and advanced than the signature one. One signature can detect only one sample, while heuristics can detect a few or even few hundreds of samples of files that belong to one so-called family (usually similar in behavior or patterns of actions). The behavioral heuristics we are talking about are basically a chain of actions (file system events, to be precise) done by a program, which is then compared with a chain of events in a database of malicious behavior patterns.

The chain of events in a database of malicious behavior patterns

Behavioral heuristics are accompanied by white and blacklists of various programs. Why do we need a whitelist check? Because heuristics are capable of detecting new ransomware threats, yet at the same time, they operate on the basis of experience/behavior results and need to be controlled for false positives. That is why Acronis Active Protection products check any suspicious processes against the whitelist and blacklist. At the same time when user blocks the potential ransomware attack, it goes into the blacklist and this does not let this malicious program to start on next reboot. This is very important because users do not have to repeat the process of blocking a certain type of ransomware again and again.

An obvious way for cybercriminals to compromise the backup would be an attack to the Acronis True Image program. That’s why Acronis Active Protection uses self-protection of the Acronis agent program. No process in the system except Acronis software can modify backup files. We have also implemented a robust self-defense mechanism that will eliminate any typical ransomware attack and will not allow criminals to disrupt the work of the backup software or alter the content of backup files.

More than that, Acronis Active Protection also monitors the Master Boot Record of the user’s Windows-based hard drive and will not allow any changes from non-whitelisted legitimate utilities.

Does Acronis Active Protection work with any ransomware attack?

Yes, it does. However, we must structure this in a way of constant, active data protection from three main ransomware vectors.

1. Stopping a Ransomware attack on any file

A typical ransomware case can usually be solved by using previously backed-up files to restore compromised data. However, this is now easier to handle and most likely will never happen on a wider scale if you have an Acronis Active Protection-enabled product. Restoration of a few encrypted files is done automatically (after user confirmation) and to the latest version-- because the technology works in real-time. Imagine the situation when a backup is scheduled to be done at midnight, but at 11 P.M., ransomware hits the machine. If you simply recover files from an online backup, 11 hours of work are lost. However, with constant monitoring of processes and activity, as described above, no data is lost when a ransomware attack is initiated.

2. When Ransomware attacks a local backup file

In this case, Acronis Active Protection actively monitors any local drives and prevents backup files from being modified by malicious ransomware.

3. Сloud backups are modified by Ransomware

Cloud backup files stored in Acronis Cloud Storage are exceptionally safe from direct modification by malicious code, by using end-to-end strong encryption and restricting access to file modification activities only to signed and authorized Acronis agent software.

How to deal with ransomware attacks

Let’s take a look at the table below, describing techniques and methods used by ransomware to compromise data.

Ransomware attack Explanation Acronis Active Protection response
In-place overwrite The ransomware attack opens and modifies data files in-place Driver provides file access notifications to the service with heuristics data, performs copy-on-write of suspicious activities. The service detects the case, suspends the ransomware, and the driver rolls back the file from its own cache.
Via rename The ransomware attack creates a new file, copies original content, modifies a new file, deletes the original file. The same pattern as above.
Via new file The ransomware attack creates a new file, copies original content, modifies a new file, deletes the original file. The same pattern as above.
Master Boot Record overwriting Ransomware opens PhysicalDrive, overwrites MBR, the system is rebooted, HDD/MFT is encrypted on reboot (chkdsk disguised). The driver watches WRITE/SCSI operations to MBR via RAW FS, notifies the service, the service verifies the process and makes the decision.
In-place overwrite/or rename/or new file with injection into known processes Ransomware is injected into a well-known process and performs malicious actions. The driver provides injection attempt notifications to the service and the service instructs the driver to start watching the process without performing copy-on-write. If suspicious patterns are noticed, a user can be instructed to recover files from the cloud.

Why is Acronis Active Protection better than antivirus and backup software?

That’s actually simple: two separate products won’t save your data from a ransomware attack, as they do not know how to talk to each other. Any data impacted by a missed detection from an anti-malware solution in a traditional approach is gone, as no anti-malware solution backs up files to the cloud and no backup solution detects malware. However, when Acronis Active Protection is paired with Acronis Cloud via an Acronis endpoint agent, original data can be recovered from local caches, local backups, or cloud backups. This eliminates one of the most dangerous types of ransomware.

Anti-malware software can miss a ransom-demanding malware, and cybercriminals are well aware of this limitation. The bad guys research major, if not all, anti-malware solutions to find weaknesses in detection technologies or program architecture in order to avoid detection. As we already mentioned, traditional signature detection is useless nowadays, because cybercriminals just need to encrypt the malware in order to avoid detection. And many free anti-virus software packages still use this approach, which is why all anti-malware vendors recommend using backups, as we said earlier. At the same time, all cloud backup solutions protect against a simple attack vector – damage of data on a local machine. But no one protects against a targeted attack on a backup solution.

Acronis Active Protection protects against future threats

Why would cybercriminals attack backups? Because they will see a threat for their business/money income very soon. Projects like www.nomoreransom.org/prevention-advice.html motivate users to do two simple and very important things:

  1. Always – backup your data
  2. Do not pay the ransom!

So, bad guys are already attacking backup files. However, this won’t be enough in almost all cases, as many backup solutions have cloud storage. In order to compromise a cloud-based backup, they need to acquire access credentials — and regular ransomware and malware attackers typically do not have these capabilities.

Ransomware is stopped by Acronis Active Protection – AAP self-defense feature activated

Soon, bad guys will think: “How does data make its way to the cloud?” The answer, obviously, is through an agent on the device. Technically, there are many ways to inject the malicious code in the local agent and compromise backup data in the cloud. The only backup software that can stop this future attack is an Acronis product with Active Protection.

A few things to remember

Acronis Active Protection is the new generation of data protection that provides:

  • Real-time backup and protection from ransomware attacks for the Windows platform. There will be no time gap in restored versions of the files, so you do not have to lose any of your progress.
  • Future proof protection that can be enhanced even further when new ransomware threats emerge.
  • A transparent, user friendly interface that works pretty much automatically.

As you can see, Acronis Active Protection adds an additional, and better, layer of data protection against the ransomware attacks of today and the future.

Download pdf version of Ransomware Protection