Ransomware, widely considered to be the fastest-growing malware hazard of the 21st century, continues to threaten the uptime, profits and brand reputation of the transportation & logistics industry.
by James R. Slaby
Famous ransomware victims like the Maersk, Deutsche Bahn and FedEx only partially reflect the magnitude of the threat, which is global in scope and continues to expand at a frightening pace. Transportation & logistics executives need to deploy a battery of technologies, procedures and policies to prevent ransomware attacks from bringing down critical systems across their companies.
How ransomware attacks transportation & logistics companies and other industries
Ransomware is a type of malicious software that infects computer servers, desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, infiltrating through a variety of mechanisms and often spreading laterally across a business from one device to another. Once it infects a system, the virus quietly encrypts every data file it finds, then displays a ransom note to the user. The extortion message starts by demanding an online payment of anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars (generally in some untraceable cryptocurrency like Bitcoin) in return for the decryption keys needed to restore the user’s locked files. The demand often includes a series of deadlines for payment: each missed deadline leads to a higher ransom demand and perhaps some destroyed files. If the victim doesn’t pay up, the attacker discards the decryption keys, making the data permanently inaccessible.
Transportation & logistics presents a tempting target to ransomware gangsters for several reasons. One, the effects of a successful ransomware attack are felt well outside the business itself, disrupting the supply chains of hundreds or thousands of other businesses, ratcheting up the pressure to quickly pay the ransom to restore service. Two, the highly interconnected nature of the business (which intersects at various points with smaller forwarders as well as suppliers, producers and retailers) presents multiple points of malware infiltration: find a weak link, and ransomware can spread quickly along the chain of systems. Three, relatively low margins have made it difficult to justify investments in cybersecurity infrastructure in the absence of a debilitating attack. The recent wave of crippling ransomware attacks on transportation & logistics companies has forced many industry players to reevaluate those priorities.
Hardly a week goes by without news of another successful ransomware attack on the transportation & logistics industry. Here are just a few:
· Germany’s rail network suffered a massive service interruption when Deutsche Bahn’s systems were attacked by the global WannaCry epidemic of 2017. Confused travelers were confronted by ticketing terminals and information monitors displaying ransom demand messages.
· Danish transportation and logistics giant Maersk suffered $300M of business interruption losses due to the NotPetya outbreak of 2017. The resulting downtime forced a 20% drop in its shipping volume when it had to fall back to manual operations during the recovery effort, which required Maersk to re-install 4000 servers, 45,000 PCs, and 2500 applications over ten days.
· FedEx also got clobbered by the NotPetya ransomware outbreak of 2017, which brought the operations of its new subsidiary TNT Express to its knees for days. FedEx clocked its operating losses due to the attack at $300M, and raised the cost of its integration of TNT systems by $75M.
The costs of ransomware are high and growing fast
The impact and costs of ransomware attacks have been felt well beyond the transportation and logistics industry. For example, tech vendor Nuance recently reported that a ransomware attack it suffered in the fall of 2017 cost it $68M in refunds to customers for service disruptions and another $24M in cleanup costs. Ransomware afflicted the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, bringing many of its facilities to a standstill for several days, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of operations and appointments and the frantic relocation of emergency patients from stricken emergency centers.
These examples are just some of the higher-profile ones from recent months. Various researchers have shown that ransomware has affected a total of 55% of businesses. Just the amount of ransom that criminals are successfully collecting from victims shows an alarming trend: total ransoms surged from $325M in 2015 to $5B in 2017, and are projected to reach $11.5B by 2019. But as examples like Maersk and Nuance show, the total damage of ransomware attacks -- including the costs of business interruption, attack recovery and forensics, damage to brand equity, lost customers and compliance violation fines -- are far greater. For example, the global costs of the WannaCry epidemic are estimated to total a whopping $8B.
How ransomware got to be a malware epidemic
The reasons for the rapid growth of this particular category of malware are mostly attributable to its evolution from a one-time cottage industry to a modern, criminal version of the software-as-a-service business. Ransomware gangs copied the model of tech vendors like Salesforce.com, continually and rapidly developing and improving their product and relying on a network of distributors to get it onto as many machines as possible. In the case of ransomware, the distributors are lower-level, unskilled criminals that use a variety of techniques to attack victims, including phishing emails with infected web links or attachments, and fake websites that invisibly download malware to users that visit them. Exploiting operating system vulnerabilities that are not widely known (so-called zero-day exploits) and thus likely to be unpatched are another popular technique, one used in both the WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware outbreaks.
Under this so-called ransomware-as-a-service model, criminal software engineers are constantly turning out new variants of ransomware to take advantage of various vulnerabilities in operating systems, applications and user behaviors, staying one step ahead of business IT and security staffers and the tech vendors they rely on for defensive measures. In parallel, these ransomware gangs have also developed sophisticated distribution, monitoring, notification and payment infrastructures which they make available to their “distributors” for free. All a would-be criminals needs to do to get into the ransomware distribution racket is to download some very simple-to-use software tools and start spreading the virus around. The developers and the distributors then split the profits of victims who pay the ransom.
How transportation & logistics providers can fight back against ransomware
In the face of this rapidly-growing threat, transportation & logistics providers can take some concrete steps to protect their systems from the operational disruptions and high costs of successful ransomware attacks. Step one is to start educating employees on the techniques that ransomware distributors use, teaching them to be wary of the email links they click on, websites they visit, and attachments they open.
Good network and security hygiene measures remain important, like segmenting networks to make it harder for ransomware to spread from system to system, keeping endpoint anti-malware software up-to-date, and patching known vulnerabilities in operating systems and applications as quickly as possible.
Finally, given the high success rate of ransomware attacks, it is imperative to institute a rigorous backup regimen and keep multiple copies of critical business and patient data both locally, offsite and in the cloud. Routine, frequent backup remains the most foolproof defense against ransomware: if your systems are compromised, you can simply identify the onset of the attack and restore your systems from clean backups created before the incursion.
Law enforcement and security experts agree that paying the ransom is a very poor defense: over half of ransomware victims who pay do not successfully recover their files, either because the extortionists fail to deliver the promised keys, or have implemented the encryption/decryption algorithms so poorly that the keys don’t work.
Final thoughts and further reading
To avoid becoming victims of the next widespread ransomware attack, transportation & logistics companies will have to deploy the basic measures outlined above, and consider deploying leading-edge technologies for ransomware defense like Acronis Active Protection, a free extension to Acronis Cyber Backup that uses machine learning to identify ransomware attacks in progress, instantly terminate them, and automatically restore any damaged files.
For case studies of enterprises that have used Acronis Active Protection to effectively protect themselves against ransomware attacks, see these stories on auto dealership Ready Honda, electronics manufacturer Johnson Electric, and aluminum refining giant Hydro Alunorte.
For details on how Active Protection works, see: https://www.acronis.com/en-us/resource-center/resource/276/
Acronis is a Swiss company, founded in Singapore. Celebrating two decades of innovation, Acronis has more than 2,000 employees in 45 locations. Acronis Cyber Protect solution is available in 26 languages in over 150 countries and is used by 18,000 service providers to protect over 750,000 businesses.