Cyber Risks

Beyond the Breach

With credit card data flooding the black market, criminals are now more likely to hit a company directly by threatening to vaporize data or cripple operations
By: | October 1, 2015 • 10 min read

The old-school protection racket has gone high tech. There’s a whole new crop of criminals threatening businesses — demanding cash in order for the “privilege” of not having their livelihoods destroyed.

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The bad guys may have ditched the fedoras and spats in favor of hoodies and Chuck Taylors. But the bottom line remains the same.

It’s all about the Benjamins. Or maybe the Bitcoins, in this case.

Welcome to the new frontier of cyber extortion — the world where a few lines of programming code can take a company hostage — or even shutter it for good.

Sure, the “old-fashioned” data breach is alive and well, but it has declined in profitability as the black market for credit card and Social Security data has become oversaturated. The bad guys, meanwhile, went in search of greener pastures.

Cyber extortion, in the form of distributed denial of service (DDoS) threats with ransom demands, began grabbing the attention of security professionals several years ago. These attacks are designed to cripple victims’ ability to transact any business online until the ransom is paid.

Welcome to the new frontier of cyber extortion — the world where a few lines of programming code can take a company hostage — or even shutter it for good.

The most obvious targets for DDoS attacks, initially, were those that stood to lose the most from a service outage. Payment processing vendors and online gaming sites were early victims.

Podcast: Mother-daughter duo Alina and Inna Simone tell Radiolab about being held hostage by criminals who burrowed into their lives from half a world away.

But the field of targets broke wide open with the birth of automated ransomware — malware that disables a computer system by encrypting data and locking the victim out.

A pop-up window displays a demand for ransom, typically with a threat to delete or publicly share the data if the ransom isn’t paid by a specified time.

Tim Francis, second vice president and enterprise cyber lead, Travelers

Tim Francis, second vice president and enterprise cyber lead, Travelers

Cryptolocker, first appearing in September 2013, netted around $3 million for its operators until it was finally isolated in June 2014. Variants such as Cryptowall, however, were quick to fill the void.

Prior to Cryptolocker, extortion events were somewhat rare and often involved someone with an axe to grind, said Tim Francis, a second vice president with Travelers and the company’s enterprise cyber lead.

“But around two years ago you saw a switch, which was the commoditization of the software that did the extortion for you …  . Now it wasn’t somebody who knew anything about your company … it was just somebody out to make a buck.”

Fear Sells

Cyber extortion has been propelled into a rather lucrative cottage industry, and potential targets are everywhere.

Reported extortion events have run the gamut from police departments to pizza chains. If criminals cast a wide enough net, they only need a small number of targets to take the email bait in order to collect a respectable payout.

Estimates of the amount being extorted from victims vary wildly. However, in a 2012 report titled “Ransomware: A Growing Menace,” researchers at Symantec were able to estimate the earnings for one particular extortion gang at $394,000 in a single month.

Any current figure would likely be much higher. But the chance of being able to obtain that figure is slim, because no one wants to advertise it.

There are multiple reasons why this type of attack is successful enough to keep criminals engaged.

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For one, the rise of Bitcoin and other digital currency has enabled extortionists to operate in a virtually anonymous and untraceable environment.

For another, most criminal actors have shrewdly opted to keep demands modest, increasing the chances that a victim will choose the path of least resistance and simply pay up.

No one is ever eager to capitulate to the demands of an anonymous extortionist. And some have gone to great lengths to avoid giving in. Sometimes, however, that hasn’t been a sound risk management decision.

Code hosting company Code Spaces was hit by a DDoS attack in mid-2014 and refused to give in to ransom demands.

Instead it tried to take back its account by changing passwords. The extortionists, who had created backup logins, retaliated by randomly deleting files.

Most of the company’s data, backups, machine configurations and offsite backups were either partially or completely deleted. The company became a sad statistic — one of the 60 percent of small businesses forced to fold within six months of a serious cyber attack.

Speculation, however, is that many companies opt not to take such a risk, and simply choose the lesser evil and pay off their attackers. The SANS Institute estimated in 2009 that thousands of organizations were quietly paying off cyber extortionists.

“Not disclosing that you’ve been breached, in itself, is one of the main reasons that some decide to pay a cyber extortion threat rather than handling it with assistance from law enforcement,” said Jessica Lindo, vice president, professional lines at Allied World.

Jessica Lindo, vice president, professional lines, Allied World

Jessica Lindo, vice president, professional lines, Allied World

Lindo and other experts aren’t quick to opine on whether victims should or shouldn’t pay, because every situation is unique.

“Whether a company decides to pay depends on their assessment of the credibility of the threat,” said Lindo.

“If they are confident … that the threat is legitimate and can be actioned upon, they may be inclined to pay the ransom. … Within the retention it may be solely up to them to decide whether they want to pay the ransom without involving the insurer,” she said.

“Each situation would need to be analyzed on its own merits,” agreed Matt Donovan, national underwriting leader, technology and privacy, with Hiscox USA.

“Many companies are able to thwart ransomware issues if they are able to restore to an earlier backup of the file system. In these instances, the system restoration can potentially be a better option than paying the demand.”

That solution won’t fit every type of threat, however. The very public airing last year of Sony’s dirty laundry understandably rattled plenty of top-level executives. The threat of public exposure rather than outright deletion of data could easily be enough to force the hand of businesses that fear embarrassment or loss of reputational stature.

Lindo noted that in the event an insured is faced with a demand high enough to pierce its retention level, it would be a mistake to assume that an insurer would withhold approval to pay on a ransom demand.

“Once that threat is actioned upon, it could become a much larger cyber loss.” she said.

“And the loss may move from one handled solely by the company within the retention to one involving insurance.”

Cyber, Extortion, or Both?

There are a few gray areas surrounding the question of whether a cyber extortion event would trigger coverage in a typical cyber policy. Some also have questions about whether a kidnap, ransom and extortion policy (KR&E) would exclude a cyber event.

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Travelers’ Francis said that as with any policy, it’s going to come down to whether the circumstances of the event align with the wording of the policy.

“Not every K&R policy is the same, not every cyber policy is the same,” he said.

“Like anything else, your agent or the customer needs to make sure their specific policy as written would cover it. … Certainly in any standard cyber policy you should expect to find some degree of coverage. But it would not be unusual for a K&R policy to cover cyber-related events in addition to non-cyber types of extortion events.”

“Having the financial backing of an insurance policy can bring financial security and the breach response expertise needed to navigate the attack when it occurs.” — Matt Donovan, national underwriting leader, technology and privacy, Hiscox USA

Brian Dunphy, senior managing director, management and professional risk group, Crystal & Company, added that because cyber extortion is rarely enacted under a policy, such a policy is fairly easily to obtain.

“But it’s not in many cases a standard grant of cover. It’s one of those things you have to ask for it if you want it.”

Not many are asking though, because they’re not thinking about it as an exposure unless there is a specific reason to consider their data sensitive.

But the bad guys don’t really care who they attack, said Francis, and plenty of organizations simply have no type of coverage in place.

“Cyber policies are still not purchased as frequently as they should be, but still they’re more likely to be purchased than K&R policies generally,” he said.

“Many companies have neither.”

Those companies could easily find themselves in a world of hurt.

“Having the financial backing of an insurance policy can bring financial security and the breach response expertise needed to navigate the attack when it occurs,” said Donovan of Hiscox.

Path of Least Resistance

Most cyber extortion is an opportunistic crime, said Allied World’s Lindo. Organizations with less than adequate security controls are going to be the most vulnerable.

“The controls you implement in a sophisticated security and business continuity program are the same controls that are likely to prevent a cyber extortion threat,” she said.

“So if there’s any good news in cyber, I think it’s that.

“The most important thing [risk managers] can do is to prioritize their assets,” said Lindo.

“Identify the most valuable data, most sensitive data — areas that would give you the greatest financial harm if disclosed, your most critical processes and applications.”

“Segregating the ‘crown jewels’ from the rest of your network can be an easy starting point,” said Donovan.

“You can’t just rip the plug out of the wall and expect the threat to go away.” — Brian Dunphy, senior managing director, management and professional risk group, Crystal & Company

Once you’ve identified those assets, then you can target your resources around preventing access to those assets and ensuring that you’ve built redundant systems around them to ensure business continuity in the event of an attack.

Many of the other precautions that should be in place are the same as those companies employ to protect against other types of network intrusions.

Beyond simple anti-virus software installation, said Donovan, companies should consider penetration testing, bug-bounty programs and data-classification programs.

“Daily backups can help thwart the ransomware attacks as well,” he said.

Travelers’ Francis poses an apt analogy: “There are a dozen houses on the street. One of them is well lit with clear lines of sight, the doors and windows are locked. [Criminals are] going to move on to the other house down the street that doesn’t have lights and leaves the door open; they’re going to take the path of least resistance.

“Lock your doors, turn on your lights. Use firewalls, have a process in place, use the right software, check your logs, have virus detection. It’s not bulletproof, but it may be enough to have the bad guys go after someone else instead of you.”

A far-too-often overlooked piece of the puzzle is having an incident response plan for a cyber extortion event, experts agreed.

“Today, I would say that cyber extortion is probably not a part of [most companies’] incident response plans,” said Lindo. “I’m not sure that most companies have fully considered these type of threats.”

Without a plan in place, there’s little chance for an organization to address an extortion event effectively, or prevent it from escalating.

“You can’t just rip the plug out of the wall and expect the threat to go away,” added Dunphy of Crystal & Company.

“There’s a lot that needs to be addressed. … It’s like practicing a fire drill for kids in school — when the alarm sounds, does everybody know what their roles and responsibilities are? Cyber extortion is just like that. Do you know what to do? Who to contact? The steps in which things are supposed to take place?”

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When faced with a threat, said Lindo, you never want that to be “the first time you’re discussing what you’re going to do and how you’re going to respond.”

The threat of cyber extortion is yet another reason why risk managers must help their organizations understand that data security is an enterprise-level issue.

“It’s important to have a culture that understands the value of the data that they’ve got, and the ramifications financially and reputationally if that data was to go missing or to be made public,” said Francis.

And that culture must be driven from the top of the organization down into every department, so that data security is top priority for all.

“There’s no one weak link,” he said.

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Black Swan: Cloud Attack

Breaking Clouds

A combination of physical and cyber attacks on multiple data centers for cloud service providers causes economic havoc. Even the most well-prepared companies are thrown into paralyzing coverage confusion.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 10 min read

Scenario

By month 16 of the new presidential administration, the Sunshine Brigade is more than ready to act.

Stoked by their anger over rampant economic inequality, the mostly college-educated group of what might best be called upper-middle-class anarchists — many of them from California, Oregon and Washington State — put in motion the gears of a plan more than two years in the making.

Their logic, to them at least, is unimpeachable. Continued consolidation of economic power into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations is creating a world where the rich increasingly exploit and shut out the poor.

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The rise of the techno giants is accelerating this trend, according to the Sunshine Brigade’s de facto leader Emily Brookes, an All-American rugby player and a graduate of Reed College in Oregon.

With a new presidential administration seemingly bent on increasing the economic advantages of the rich with no end in sight, nothing to do then but break things up; and in so doing break the hold of this technology oligarchy.

As Emily Brookes so forcefully put in her instant messages to the other members of the brigade: Break the Cloud.

With more than 500 members, many of them with ample financial and technical resources, the Sunshine Brigade is very capable of delivering on its plan for a two-pronged attack.

It is also radicalized enough to justify the loss of some human life, even its own countrymen, to “save” — in its collective logic — the tens of millions of global citizens that are living as virtual slaves in this callous, exploitative global economy.

With websites and digitally connected services large and small down for days, irritation turns to fear.

The first wave in the attack is an attempt to infect and shut down the data centers for the top three cloud service providers. It takes months to set up this offensive.

Rather than rely on a phishing scam from outside the firewalls of the service providers, The Sunshine Brigade uses its social and business connections to place three members on each of the cloud provider’s payrolls. An infected link from someone you know, someone in the cubicle right next to you, seems like an unstoppable play.

It only partially works. Only one of the cloud service providers is harmed when an unsuspecting employee clicks on a link from their traitorous co-worker. The released malware manages to cripple a major cloud service provider for 12 hours.

With millions of users affected, the act creates substantial disruption and garners global headlines. Insured losses are around $1.5 billion. But this is just the beginning.

The morning after, the Sunshine Brigade unleashes a far more devastating and far more ruthless Round Two.

Using self-driving trucks, the Sunshine Brigade smashes into five data centers; three on the West Coast, and two in the Midwest. Fourteen employees of those cloud servers are killed and another 23 injured; some of them critically.

This time the Brigade gets what it wanted. The physical damage to the data centers is substantial enough that it significantly affects three of the top four cloud service providers for five days.

With websites and digitally connected services large and small down for days, irritation turns to fear.

Small and mid-sized banks, which host their applications on clouds, are shut down. Small business owners and consumer banking customers immediately feel the brunt. Retailers that depend on clouds to host their inventory and transaction information are also hit hard.

But really, the blow falls everywhere.

In the U.S., transportation, financial, health, government and other crucial services grind to a halt in many cases.

Not everyone is disrupted. Some of the larger corporations are sophisticated enough in their risk management, those that used back-up clouds and had steadfast business resiliency plans suffer minimal disruption.

Many small to mid-size companies, though, cannot operate. Their employees can’t get to work and when they can, they sit idly in front of blank computer screens connected to useless servers.

For the man on the street, this is hell.

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Long lines blossom at the likes of gas stations, banks and grocery stores. A population already on edge from a steady diet of social media provocation becomes even more inflamed.

By nightfall of Day Five, the three major cloud service providers are recovered, and digital “normalcy” begins to creep back. But for many small and medium-sized businesses, the recovery comes way too late.

Economic losses promise to register in the tens of billions. It’s not being too imaginative to think that losses could hit the $100 billion mark.

Two multinational insurers based in the U.S., three Lloyd’s syndicates and a Bermuda insurer signal to regulators that their aggregate cyber-related losses are so great that they will most likely become insolvent.

Emily Brookes and her cohorts were willing to kill more than a dozen people to promote their worldview. In their youthful naiveté, they could not know just how much suffering they would cause.

Observations

For some commercial insurance carriers, the aggregated losses from a prolonged disruption of cloud computing services could be catastrophic, or close to it.

“It’s on a par with any earthquake or hurricane or tornado,” said Scott Stransky, an associate vice president and principal scientist with the modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

AIR modeled the insured losses for the Fortune 1,000 were Amazon’s cloud service to go down for one day. They came up with a figure of $3 billion.

Now consider that most businesses in this country are small businesses, with not nearly the risk management sophistication of the Fortune 1000. Then consider a cloud interruption of five days or more.

Mark Greisiger, president, NetDiligence

“Almost any company you talk about today would rely to some extent on the cloud, either to host their website, to do invoicing, inventory, you name it — the cloud is being used across the board,” Stransky said.

“It’s a significant issue for insurers and one we think about a lot,” said Nick Economidis, an underwriter with specialty carrier Beazley.

“Should a cloud service provider go down, everybody who is working with that cloud service provider is impacted by that,” he said.

“Now, pretty much every software maker is on the cloud,” said Mark Greisiger, president of NetDiligence.

“In the old days, someone would come in and install software on your servers and come in annually for maintenance. That’s all gone bye-bye. Everybody who makes software is forcing you onto their private cloud,” Greisiger said.

The aggregation risk for carriers is complicated by the degree of transparency they have into which insured’s applications are hosted on which cloud provider.

Now here’s the even trickier part. Clouds outsource to other clouds.

“It’s almost becoming a spider’s web of interdependencies on who has access to what in terms of upstream and downstream providers,” Greisiger said.

Determining which of their insureds is hosted on which cloud, and in turn, where that cloud is outsourcing to other clouds can be very difficult for carriers to determine.

Even if a company is careful to diversify the risks they’re taking, they might not realize that a high percentage of insureds are even with the same cloud provider. They could be hit with devastating losses across their entire portfolio of business, said an executive with BDO consulting.

AIR’s Stransky said his company launched a product in April, ARC, which stands for Analytics of Risk from Cyber, which is designed to help carriers gain that much needed transparency.

Among insureds, surviving an event of this magnitude will depend not only on the sophistication of their risk management department, but on the company’s overall ability to negotiate contracts with vendors and suppliers that will indemnify the company in the case of a cloud outage of this duration.

It will also depend on organization’s understanding that there is no off-the-shelf solution that will prevent an event like this or make a company whole after it.

Shiraz Saeed, national practice leader, cyber, Starr Companies

Experts say contracts with cloud service providers, customers and suppliers must be structured so that a company is defended should it lose cloud access for as much as five days or more.

Best practices also include modeling just what your losses would look like in this area, and vetting your full portfolio of insurance policies to understand how each would respond.

One broker said buyers can’t be blamed if the complexities of the coverage issues at stake here are initially hard to grasp.

“It’s becoming a spider’s web of interdependencies on who has access to what.” —Mark Greisiger, president, NetDiligence

“I think it’s the broker’s job to inform the client of this exposure,” said Doug Friel, a vice president with JKJ Commercial Insurance, based in Newtown, Pa.

“You may have business interruption coverage for direct physical damage to your building. But have you ever thought about your business income if your IT structure goes down?” Friel said.

He said many buyers might not realize there is a difference.

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Large businesses should have the resources to demand from their cloud service providers that they be indemnified for the entirety of a cloud failure event. There will be a fee for that, but it will be well worth paying, Friel said.

“You have to push,” Friel said. “They are going to say, ‘Here is our standard contract, sign it.’ ”

Don’t settle for that, he said, although many do in ignorance, he added.

“Where possible, we would look for clients to negotiate their contracts. These business relationships should be mutually beneficial, even if one of these events occur,” said Shiraz Saeed, national practice leader, cyber, for the Starr Companies.

It’s a partnership, he said.

“It shouldn’t be a zero sum game on either side. I think there should be an understanding of what the potential loss might be and then designing a contract around that,” he said.

While cloud service providers are known for having high grade security systems, most average organizations don’t have the means for that. But no matter what a company’s resources, the first step is modeling where your digital assets are, and what you and your customers stand to lose if you lose access to them.

“Most insureds don’t seem to understand the amount of individual loss that you could be subject to,” said Jim Evans, leader of insurance advisory services at BDO Consulting. “Usually this stuff is measured in hours,” he said. “But what if a cloud provider is out for three or four days?” he said.

“Trying to quantify what you did lose in an event is hard enough. Trying to do a modeling exercise about what you could lose? It’s something that just doesn’t get done enough,” he said.

Once you have an understanding of what you own and what you stand to lose, the next step is prioritizing the protection of the assets you have. That means drilling into your contract with your cloud service providers to get the maximum indemnification.

It also means spreading your risk so that if at all possible, not all of your assets or your customers’ assets are housed by one cloud service provider. Cloud platforms can be public, private, or a hybrid of the two.

Understanding where your assets are in that architecture is crucial. Spending the money to insure that they are protected behind a diverse menu of firewalls is highly advisable.

Navigating the different iterations of business interruption coverage in property, cyber and kidnap and ransom policies is also important.

Make sure your broker can provide clarity on the different types of coverages and tailor them to your needs, experts said.

The concept of design thinking is really what’s in play here. Organizations have to work with vendors in every aspect of their operations to design a risk management system that can sustain this kind of hit.

“Build a better mousetrap to protect yourself,” said JKJ’s Friel.

“Depending on your service, you need to have the best and the brightest designing this stuff. Spread the risk.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for more,” he said.

Postscript

In engineering an attack on the cloud, Emily Brookes and her cohorts accomplished the opposite of what they set out to do.

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Only the largest corporations with the most sophisticated risk management programs were able to survive the attempt to break the cloud with manageable losses.

Small businesses, the true backbone of the U.S. economy, suffered terribly. Entrepreneurs who put their life’s work into their business lost it in many cases.

Those on the lowest part of the economic scale, the working poor, lost their jobs and their ability to cover their rent and grocery bills. They joined the ranks of those subsidized by the government by the millions.  The attempt to break the cloud resulted in an even more polarized society. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]