Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Cyberwar and the Future of Cybersecurity

No more ransomware: How one website is stopping the crypto-locking crooks in their tracks

No More Ransom launched a year ago: here's the story of how cybersecurity firms and law enforcement are working together to bring down ransomware.

Ransomware is a huge problem. While the recent WannaCry and Petya attacks brought the file-encrypting malware to the attention of a global audience twice in as many months, ransomware has been rising up the list of corporate cybersecurity headaches for years.

During 2016 alone, ransomware attacks cost victims over $1bn thanks to simple the fear tactics it employs: pay up, or we delete all your data. In many instances, organisations are willing to give in and pay the cybercriminals.

Law enforcement organisations and cybersecurity companies around the world have attempted to do what they can to disrupt ransomware -- whether through takedowns of cybercriminal gangs by the authorities or security companies finding and providing decryption keys.

But this disjointed approach can only get so far in the modern hyper-connected world in which criminals cooperate across international borders and time zones.

It's why the No More Ransom initiative was launched a year ago, with the idea of bringing together law enforcement and private industry to combine efforts in the fight against cybercrime.

"It's the idea of everyone bringing what they're best at to the table to jointly try and tackle the biggest threat that we see out there," says Steve Wilson, head of Europol's Cybercrime Centre (EC3).

Launched jointly by Europol, the Dutch National Police, McAfee (then Intel Security), and Kaspersky Lab on July 25 2016, No More Ransom provided keys to unlocking encrypted files, as well as information on how to avoid succumbing to ransomware in the first place.

The portal initially provided decryption tools for four ransomware families: Shade, Rannoh, Rakhn, and CoinVault. It was collaborative work on decrypting CoinVault that led to the creation of a precursor to No More Ransom.

"We were working on CoinVault and did a lot of work with the Dutch police, and we were able to identify the command and control servers the cybercriminals were using," says David Emm, principal security researcher, Kaspersky Lab.

The operation led to Kaspersky uploading free-to-use decryption keys to a website and it took off from there. "It was really successful and this was just one and part of a wider trend, so we wanted to establish wider involvement," he says.

McAfee agreed that this collaboration -- both between competing private firms and the authorities -- was the way forward in the fight against the escalation of ransomware.

"There was just a sense that what would be nice would be to have an initiative to collaborate and work together on. But also to have a single point that people could go to when we create free decryption tools," says Raj Samani, chief scientist at McAfee.

That single place was the No More Ransom portal, which since its launch has been hosted by Amazon Web Services and Barracuda Networks -- and if it wasn't for cloud-hosting, the website would have been overwhelmed on its first day.

no-more-ransom.jpg

The No More Ransom portal offers free ransomware decryption tools and advice against malware.

Image: Europol

"Part of my responsibility was to find a hosting provider and I remember at the time I was asked how many HTTPs requests do you think you'll get a day and I thought 12,000 a day would be reasonable," says Samani.

"On day one we had 2.7 million -- then during one day, the weekend of WannaCry, we had eight million hits in a single day, so it's much bigger than we ever thought."

Following the initial success of the initiative, seven more cybersecurity firms have since joined as associate partners -- Bitdefender, Check Point, Trend Micro, Emisoft, ElevenPaths, Avast and Cert.PL -- each contributing to the development of decryption keys.

Dozens of law enforcement agencies -- including Interpol, Enisa and the NCA -- have also become actively involved in the scheme, which also receives additional support from dozens of security firms. There's now 109 partners in total and for Wilson, the more involved, the merrier: "The more people we get to contribute, the better this resource is going to be," he says.

Cybercrime is a global problem, but while there is more international cooperation between law enforcement agencies than there's been before, rules and regulations mean that sometimes the authorities can't act as quickly as they'd like.

That's a disadvantage against global crime gangs, but private cybersecurity firms can be more flexible, enabling the No More Ransom operation to take the fight to cybercriminals at a faster pace by releasing decryption tools as and when they're developed.

"Law enforcement agencies have restrictions that criminals don't -- they have the logistics of paperwork. Whereas at least under the umbrella of a project like this, there's nothing to slow it down," says Emm.

It's difficult to quantify the exact number of decryptions which have occurred thanks to downloads from No More Ransom -- the portal just provides links, it doesn't monitor what happens next -- but it's thought that over 28,000 decryptions have taken place using the tools, saving millions from being paid to cybercriminals in the process.

"It really strongly justified a single response to this rather than over each country trying to develop something themselves," says EC3's Wilson.

No More Ransom doesn't discriminate about what decryption tools are added to the portal -- sometimes these come in batches, sometimes individual decryptors are uploaded as and when they're made available -- but how does this happen?

There are a number of ways. The first is if encryption keys simply get leaked. Indeed, an example of this occurred just hours after the launch of No More Ransom when the cybercriminal gang behind the Petya ransomware -- long before it caused a global incident -- leaked 3,500 decryption keys for a competing form of ransomware, Chimera. "We were able to grab them and create a tool," says Samani.

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But most of the time, decrypting ransomware comes down to hard work, with cybersecurity firms and the authorities working together in order to identify ransomware variants and crack codes.

"Working with law enforcement, we identify the infrastructure, go through the proper legal process to seize the key server and extract the decryption keys," says Samani. That's how Shade ransomware was decrypted, resulting in 165,000 decryption keys being made available.

That's where the aid of law enforcement especially comes in -- a cybersecurity firm can't walk in and seize a botnet, but they can aid in its takedown, as was the case with Operation Avalanche, which took down a prominent malware botnet.

"On the offensive side from us, tackling the actual business model of ransomware-as-a-service and very much going after the large scale perpetrators of cybercrime is very much what we're trying to do," says Wilson.

Naturally, the very existence of No More Ransom has irked malicious actors. "Analysis of the chatter on underground forums shows how angry they are," says McAfee's Samani. "We even had a ransomware variant named after us -- there's an extension that had been encrypted as NoMoreRansom."

So the portal is required to have the best defences possible in order to prevent attacks against it.

"We've got to do all the normal housekeeping things to keep it secure. We've got to pen test it to ensure that it's as secure as we can make it. People are going to want to stop it, we need to make it as resilient as we can," says David Emm.

That's where Barracuda Networks and Amazon Web Services come in -- both powering the portal and keeping it safe from attackers -- in the spirit of cooperation on which No More Ransom is based.

"I'm blown away by how open and collaborative we've been. AWS, for example, hosting it for free, it's incredible, it's probably the most targeted website in the world and they've said OK, no arguments," says Samani.

A year on from the launch of No More Ransom, what's the project's future? An anniversary update includes more decryption tools and the website translated into even more languages to reflect the global interest in the project and to help users and businesses around the world.

The platform is now available in 26 languages, with the most recent additions Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Indonesian, Malay, Norwegian, Romanian, Swedish, Tamil and Thai.

Ransomware is a major problem and while no one is under any illusion that the project is going to eliminate the problem, those behind it are doing all they can to educate against the dangers of ransomware and provide aid against it.

"We totally accept that this isn't a panacea; there's always going to be a lag time between us being able to assist, but we're trying to make that difference," says Wilson.

That's no small task, given ransomware is ever-evolving - and things are likely to get worse before they get better.

READ MORE ON RANSOMWARE

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