Cyber Threats

Playing Dirty

WannaCry’s worldwide disruption illustrated that ransomware is the fastest-growing and most indiscriminate form of malware attack.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 5 min read

The so-called “WannaCry” attack launched in 150 countries was indiscriminate in its targets.

WannaCry employed a type of malware that encrypts files on an infected computer. The perpetrators asked for a ransom before they would unlock the files.


Critical infrastructure and businesses were disrupted by the attack. Prominent victims included FedEx, French carmaker Renault, German rail service Deutsche Bahn and Spain’s Telefonica phone network and power utilities Iberdrola and Gas Natural.

However, non-commercial targets also fell victim with disruption ranging from parts of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to Chinese universities and research institutes. An NHS England spokesperson commented: “While the NHS has tried and tested plans for major incident responses, WannaCry presented a unique set of challenges.”

Figures vary on just how rapidly the ransomware form of cyberattack is growing. Cybersecurity specialist Kaspersky Lab’s most recent report stated that the “total number of users who encountered ransomware between April 2016 and March 2017 rose by 11.4 percent compared to the previous 12 months, from 2,315,931 to 2,581,026 users around the world.”

Tim Francis, cyber insurance lead, Travelers

David Emm, Kaspersky Lab’s principal security researcher, said last year the group recorded no less than 62 new malware families, from which around 60,000 different variations were developed.

In the first quarter of 2017 alone it logged a total of 55,000 variations, already close to the total for all of 2016. Lloyd’s of London insurer Beazley, which is among those developing cyber and data breach response insurance, said the number of ransomware attacks reported by its clients increased by 50 percent from January to June this year over 2016.

However, distinguishing between a ransomware attack purely for financial gain and a pseudo-ransomware attack — where the main aim is to cause disruption and the motive more political or ideological — is becoming harder.

Many believe that the Petya attack that followed within weeks of WannaCry was malicious rather than an attempt to extract money.

Spreading Beyond Russia

The lines may be blurry, but ransomware’s status as the fastest-growing area of malware development is fuelled mainly by the fact that it has proved lucrative, said Emm.

“Five years ago, ransomware encryption still wasn’t implemented particularly well, meaning that it was fairly easy for us to fend off attacks, but more recently they have become increasingly sophisticated. In addition, enough individuals and organizations are willing to pay the ransomware to encourage the perpetrators.”

Many of the attacks emanate from Russia, where ransomware attacks were first recorded around 2005. “For the first seven years, its victims were mainly those situated in the Russian Federation,” Emm said. “It was around 2012 that it began spreading worldwide.

“There’s now a fairly even spread of incidents globally — the top 10 countries most impacted by no means account for the majority of attacks, which was reflected in the scale of the WannaCry attack and the range of organizations affected.”

While phishing attacks are typically focused and targeted, ransomware is by its nature more commoditized and has a wide net, added Tim Francis, cyber insurance lead for insurer Travelers.

“Originally ransomware attack perpetrators needed a certain level of sophistication and know-how, but the rise of the dark web and the tools it makes available mean that criminals no longer need to possess the same level of expertise.”

The indiscriminate nature of WannaCry meant that its impact extended to public sector organizations.

“Originally ransomware attack perpetrators needed a certain level of sophistication and know-how, but the rise of the dark web and the tools it makes available mean that criminals no longer need to possess the same level of expertise.” — Tim Francis, cyber insurance lead, Travelers

“WannaCry appears to have hit entities around the world. It was implanted onto systems, rather than introduced via a phishing email,” said Stephen Ridley, senior development underwriter and product head for Lloyd’s of London insurer Hiscox UK & Ireland. Rather than target specific countries or industries, the scammers expose systems with vulnerabilities and/or poor network management.


Operating on the ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ basis, ransom demands have usually pitched low, Ridley said. The WannaCry hackers asked just $300.

There are now concerns that South Korean web host Nayana could pave the way for a higher benchmark. In June the company was attacked with the Erebus ransomware and received a demand of around $4 million.

This was negotiated down to $500,000 but at the eleventh hour doubled to 397.6 bitcoin — then equivalent to $1 million — and the largest ransomware demand paid to date.

An unwelcome precedent, but Ridley notes that acceding to the demand has a potential upside: the scam was widely reported, which could make life harder for the criminals if it inspires businesses and organizations to beef up their cyber loss mitigation measures.

Accessing Expertise

As concerns over cybersecurity intensify, the market for cyber insurance expands. Global premiums totalled around $3.4 billion last year and reinsurer Munich Re expects this figure to reach up to $10 billion by 2020, with AIG, XL and Chubb currently collectively accounting for 40 percent of the market.

Stephen Ridley, senior development underwriter and product head, Hiscox

Francis said that for this particular class of insurance, a combination of different solutions is needed that goes beyond a traditional policy document.

“Insurers need to be able to offer technical expertise and experienced individuals who can advise on how best to get systems back up and running again and their data restored,” he added.

“Uninsured organizations will often find it hard to access the necessary expertise. Smaller organizations in particular will also want advice on the best practices to prevent attacks from occurring.”

The U.S. still fuels most of that demand, as even in the wake of WannaCry and Petya across the Atlantic there are few signs of more European organizations purchasing cyber insurance, or even investigating the market.

UK research consultancy FWD recently surveyed 250 broking firms nationwide and found only 4 percent reporting a noticeable increase in business.

According to Elliot Lane, FWD’s managing director of insurance, most organizations are aware of the products offered by the cyber insurance market, but “understanding of the risk is often low and policy wordings are too generic and onerous to offer comprehensive cover for all risks.” &

Graham Buck is editor of He can be reached at

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Focus: Cyber

Expanding Cyber BI

Cyber business interruption insurance is a thriving market, but growth carries the threat of a mega-loss. 
By: | March 5, 2018 • 7 min read

Lingering hopes that large-scale cyber attack might be a once-in-a-lifetime event were dashed last year. The four-day WannaCry ransomware strike in May across 150 countries targeted more than 300,000 computers running Microsoft Windows. A month later, NotPetya hit multinationals ranging from Danish shipping firm Maersk to pharmaceutical giant Merck.


Maersk’s chairman, Jim Hagemann Snabe, revealed at this year’s Davos summit that NotPetya shut down most of the group’s network. While it was replacing 45,000 PCs and 4,000 servers, freight transactions had to be completed manually. The combined cost of business interruption and rebuilding the system was up to $300 million.

Merck’s CFO Robert Davis told investors that its NotPetya bill included $135 million in lost sales plus $175 million in additional costs. Fellow victims FedEx and French construction group Saint Gobain reported similar financial hits from lost business and clean-up costs.

The fast-expanding world of cryptocurrencies is also increasingly targeted. Echoes of the 2014 hack that triggered the collapse of Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox emerged this January when Japanese cryptocurrency exchange Coincheck pledged to repay customers $500 million stolen by hackers in a cyber heist.

The size and scope of last summer’s attacks accelerated discussions on both sides of the Atlantic, between risk managers and brokers seeking more comprehensive cyber business interruption insurance products.

It also recently persuaded Pool Re, the UK’s terrorism reinsurance pool set up 25 years ago after bomb attacks in London’s financial quarter, to announce that from April its cover will extend to include material damage and direct BI resulting from acts of terrorism using a cyber trigger.

“The threat from a cyber attack is evident, and businesses have become increasingly concerned about the extensive repercussions these types of attacks could have on them,” said Pool Re’s chief, Julian Enoizi. “This was a clear gap in our coverage which left businesses potentially exposed.”

Shifting Focus

Development of cyber BI insurance to date reveals something of a transatlantic divide, said Hans Allnutt, head of cyber and data risk at international law firm DAC Beachcroft. The first U.S. mainstream cyber insurance products were a response to California’s data security and breach notification legislation in 2003.

Jimaan Sané, technology underwriter, Beazley

Of more recent vintage, Europe’s first cyber policies’ wordings initially reflected U.S. wordings, with the focus on data breaches. “So underwriters had to innovate and push hard on other areas of cyber cover, particularly BI and cyber crimes such as ransomware demands and distributed denial of service attacks,” said Allnut.

“Europe now has regulation coming up this May in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation across the EU, so the focus has essentially come full circle.”

Cyber insurance policies also provide a degree of cover for BI resulting from one of three main triggers, said Jimaan Sané, technology underwriter for specialist insurer Beazley. “First is the malicious-type trigger, where the system goes down or an outage results directly from a hack.

“Second is any incident involving negligence — the so-called ‘fat finger’ — where human or operational error causes a loss or there has been failure to upgrade or maintain the system. Third is any broader unplanned outage that hits either the company or anyone on which it relies, such as a service provider.”

The importance of cyber BI covering negligent acts in addition to phishing and social engineering attacks was underlined by last May’s IT meltdown suffered by airline BA.

This was triggered by a technician who switched off and then reconnected the power supply to BA’s data center, physically damaging servers and distribution panels.

Compensating delayed passengers cost the company around $80 million, although the bill fell short of the $461 million operational error loss suffered by Knight Capital in 2012, which pushed it close to bankruptcy and decimated its share price.

Mistaken Assumption

Awareness of potentially huge BI losses resulting from cyber attack was heightened by well-publicized hacks suffered by retailers such as Target and Home Depot in late 2013 and 2014, said Matt Kletzli, SVP and head of management liability at Victor O. Schinnerer & Company.


However, the incidents didn’t initially alarm smaller, less high-profile businesses, which assumed they wouldn’t be similarly targeted.

“But perpetrators employing bots and ransomware set out to expose any firms with weaknesses in their system,” he added.

“Suddenly, smaller firms found that even when they weren’t themselves targeted, many of those around them had fallen victim to attacks. Awareness started to lift, as the focus moved from large, headline-grabbing attacks to more everyday incidents.”

Publications such as the Director’s Handbook of Cyber-Risk Oversight, issued by the National Association of Corporate Directors and the Internet Security Alliance fixed the issue firmly on boardroom agendas.

“What’s possibly of greater concern is the sheer number of different businesses that can be affected by a single cyber attack and the cost of getting them up and running again quickly.” — Jimaan Sané, technology underwriter, Beazley

Reformed ex-hackers were recruited to offer board members their insights into the most vulnerable points across the company’s systems — in much the same way as forger-turned-security-expert Frank Abagnale Jr., subject of the Spielberg biopic “Catch Me If You Can.”

There also has been an increasing focus on systemic risk related to cyber attacks. Allnutt cites “Business Blackout,” a July 2015 study by Lloyd’s of London and the Cambridge University’s Centre for Risk Studies.

This detailed analysis of what could result from a major cyber attack on America’s power grid predicted a cost to the U.S. economy of hundreds of billions and claims to the insurance industry totalling upwards of $21.4 billion.

Lloyd’s described the scenario as both “technologically possible” and “improbable.” Three years on, however, it appears less fanciful.

In January, the head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, said the UK had been fortunate in so far averting a ‘category one’ attack. A C1 would shut down the financial services sector on which the country relies heavily and other vital infrastructure. It was a case of “when, not if” such an assault would be launched, he warned.

AI: Friend or Foe?

Despite daunting potential financial losses, pioneers of cyber BI insurance such as Beazley, Zurich, AIG and Chubb now see new competitors in the market. Capacity is growing steadily, said Allnutt.

“Not only is cyber insurance a new product, it also offers a new source of premium revenue so there is considerable appetite for taking it on,” he added. “However, whilst most insurers are comfortable with the liability aspects of cyber risk; not all insurers are covering loss of income.”

Matt Kletzli, SVP and head of management liability, Victor O. Schinnerer & Company

Kletzli added that available products include several well-written, broad cyber coverages that take into account all types of potential cyber attack and don’t attempt to limit cover by applying a narrow definition of BI loss.

“It’s a rapidly-evolving coverage — and needs to be — in order to keep up with changing circumstances,” he said.

The good news, according to a Fitch report, is that the cyber loss ratio has been reduced to 45 percent as more companies buy cover and the market continues to expand, bringing down the size of the average loss.

“The bad news is that at cyber events, talk is regularly turning to ‘what will be the Hurricane Katrina-type event’ for the cyber market?” said Kletzli.

“What’s worse is that with hurricane losses, underwriters know which regions are most at risk, whereas cyber is a global risk and insurers potentially face huge aggregation.”


Nor is the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) necessarily cause for optimism. As Allnutt noted, while AI can potentially be used to decode malware, by the same token sophisticated criminals can employ it to develop new malware and escalate the ‘computer versus computer’ battle.

“The trend towards greater automation of business means that we can expect more incidents involving loss of income,” said Sané. “What’s possibly of greater concern is the sheer number of different businesses that can be affected by a single cyber attack and the cost of getting them up and running again quickly.

“We’re likely to see a growing number of attacks where the aim is to cause disruption, rather than demand a ransom.

“The paradox of cyber BI is that the more sophisticated your organization and the more it embraces automation, the bigger the potential impact when an outage does occur. Those old-fashioned businesses still reliant on traditional processes generally aren’t affected as much and incur smaller losses.” &

Graham Buck is editor of He can be reached at