No matter how reputable, established, or progressive an organisation may be, business leaders must keep the possibility of a ransomware attack front of mind. The past year has seen cyber criminals upskill, allowing attackers to bring down even the largest multinational organisations and government bodies, grinding mission critical operations to a halt.
Acknowledging ransomware as a threat and taking immediate steps to equip, safeguard and restore data is essential for businesses that are determined to mitigate the risks of a ransomware attack. Veeam’s 2020 Data Protection Report found that the number one challenge that will impact organisations in Australia and New Zealand within the next 12 months is cyber-attacks. To avoid this, organisations must think strategically and introduce several measures to safeguard their data, namely: education, implementation and restoration.
Educating the entire business
Cyber criminals target organisations in creative ways. They understand that IT departments are less likely to fall for their tricks and may see organisational users as better targets. So while it is important that IT staff are educated on suspicious activity, it’s also important to train wider teams on what a cyber threat may look like.
The main points of entry into a business for ransomware is through Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or other remote access mechanisms, phishing and software updates. Put simply, in most cases cyber-attackers are not made to work as hard as they should to fetch big prizes. Knowing that these are the three main mechanisms is a huge help in focusing the scope of where to invest the most effort to be resilient from an attack vector perspective.
Most IT administrators use RDP for their daily work, with many RDP servers directly connected on the Internet. The reality is that Internet-connected RDP needs to stop. IT administrators can get creative on special IP addresses, redirecting RDP ports, complex passwords and more; but the data doesn’t lie that over half of ransomware comes in via RDP. This tells us that exposing RDP servers to the Internet does not align with a forward-thinking ransomware resiliency strategy.
The other frequent mode of entry is via phish mail. We’ve all seen email that doesn’t look right. The right thing to do is delete that item. Not every user handles these situations the same way, however. There are popular tools to assess the threat risk of phish success for an organisation such as Gophish and KnowBe4. Combined with training to help employees identify phishing emails or link, self-assessment tools can be an effective mode of first-line defense.
The third area that comes into play is the risk of exploiting vulnerabilities. Keeping systems up to date is an age-old IT responsibility that is more important than ever. While this is not a glamourous task, it can quickly seem a good investment should a ransomware incident exploit a known and patched vulnerability. Be mindful to keep current with updates to critical categories of IT assets: operating systems, applications, databases and device firmware. A number of ransomware strains, including WannaCry and Petya have been based on previously discovered vulnerabilities that have since been corrected.
Implement and restore
While educating employees from all streams of the organisation is important, businesses still must prepare for the worst-case scenario. IT decision makers and business leaders will still need to have resilient backup storage infrastructure ready to go.
At Veeam, we advocate the 3-2-1 rule as a general data management strategy. The 3-2-1 rule recommends that there should be at least three copies of important data, on at least two different types of media, with at least one of these copies being off-site. The best part is that this rule does not demand any particular type of hardware and is versatile enough to address nearly any failure scenario.
The ‘one’ copy in the 3-2-1 strategy has to be ultra-resilient. By this, we mean air-gapped, offline or immutable. There are different forms of media which this copy of data can be stored in an ultra-resilient manner. These include tape media, immutable backups in S3 or S3-compatible object storage, air-gapped and offline media, or software as a service for backup and Disaster Recovery (DR).
In spite of these education and implementation techniques, organisations must still be prepared to restore a threat if introduced. At Veeam, our approach is simple. Do not pay the ransom. The only option is to restore data. Additionally, organisations need to plan their response when a threat is discovered. The first action is to contact support. Veeam customers have access to a special team with specific operations to guide them through the process of restoring data in ransomware incidents. Do not put your backups at risk as they are critical to your ability to recover.
In disasters of any type, communication becomes one of the first challenges to overcome. Have a plan for how to communicate to the right individuals out-of-band. This would include group text lists, phone numbers or other mechanisms that are commonly used to align communications across an extended team. In this contact book you also need security, incident response and identity management experts – internal or external.
There are also conversations to have around decision authority. Businesses must decide who makes the call to restore or to fail over before an incident takes place. Once a decision to restore has been made, organizations need to implement additional safety checks before putting systems back online. A decision also has to be made as to whether an entire virtual machine (VM) recovery is the best course of action, or if a file-level recovery makes more sense. Finally, the restoration process itself must be secure, running full anti-virus and anti-malware scans across all systems as well as forcing users to change their passwords post-recovery.
While the threat of ransomware is real, with the right preparation organisations can increase resiliency against an incident to minimise the risk of data loss, financial loss, and reputational damage. A multi-layered approach is key. Educate your IT teams and employees to minimise risk and maximise prevention. However, implement solutions to ensure data is secure and backed up. Finally, be prepared to restore data systems through full backup and DR capabilities should your previous lines of defense fail.
This article was co-authored by Rick Vanover, Senior Director of Product Strategy, Veeam and Anthony Spiteri, Senior Global Technologist, Veeam.