Is Ransomware Getting Worse, or Does it Just Feel That Way?

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A reader contributed a great question recently: “So many more ransomware attacks are getting talked about in the news. Is ransomware growing Noun broadcast 6870591 C462DD.that quickly, or does it just seem worse than it is?” The answer is “both,” but let’s break things down.


According to Security Magazine, ransomware has indeed grown exponentially in the last year, with an 81% increase in attack activity. That’s certainly not good, but may not be telling the whole story. While there’s no doubt that threat actors have increased attacks via Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) and more sophisticated automation; some of what we’re seeing is an increase in the number of reported attacks compared to previous years.  


Better automation allows threat actors to perform more attack attempts in the same amount of time than they’d be able to perform manually. Scripting and automation have increased the effectiveness of legitimate organizations in many different ways. Processes like allowing a user access to an application which would have previously taken days or a week can now be done in seconds – safely. Stocks trades that would take hours in years past are now done in seconds – also safely, usually. As legitimate businesses have embraced automation to make their organizations better, threat actors have done the same. Now, a new exploit that would allow for a new attack, which would normally take weeks or months to see significant spread throughout the world, can become a major world-wide threat in hours. This, of course, means that more attack attempts leads to more successful attacks and higher numbers of organizations compromised year over year. 


RaaS allows established threat actor cartels to re-package and sell attack protocols they no longer use themselves to lower-tier threat actors. This extends the life of the product (the ransomware attack), and allows the cartel to continue to make money from it for much longer periods of time. By having more threat actors use existing tools against still-unpatched systems, more organizations end up compromised.


Both of these factors have lead to a marked increase in the total number of ransomware victim organizations over time, and that can’t be dismissed as a statistical blip or anything like that. We’re facing more attacks, more often, across more industries.


However, it should be noted that a huge portion of the compromised organizations would not – until recently – have reported the compromise at all. Businesses have many reasons to attempt to hide the fact that they fell victim to a ransomware attack. Loss of customer trust, violation of clauses in contracts, endangering future business – all reasons companies may choose to hide that an attack took place. This isn’t new behavior, as companies would often try to gloss over or bury anything that could impact their bottom line as you would expect – we’re just now talking about impacts caused by digital disasters instead of bad accounting practices, corporate espionage, and other more traditional events. 


Generally, if such hidden events and setbacks would cause overall market impact or jeopardize citizens of a country or locality; government agencies create regulation to make it mandatory to report it. This is not something that’s done frequently, and only occurs when the burying of such events would create major fallout in an entire market or a large group of citizens. Typically, new regulations only occur after such a major impact occurs. Over the last several years, the impact of cybersecurity incidents has indeed begun to cause fallout in markets, and has caused impact to massive amounts of citizens through identity theft and other problems. Because of this, governments have begun to pass legislation that makes it mandatory to quickly disclose any cybersecurity incident which might have a “material impact” to markets and/or consumers. You can read more about one such regulation in a previous post here.


In the USA, both the Federal Government (specifically the Securities and Exchange Commission) and several State Governments (most notably New York and California) have already passed regulations which compel organizations to report incidents via public filings. The SEC, for example, requires the filing of an amendment to a regular reporting form (8-K) within four days of any incident that has material impact, and the incident must also be part of the annual 10-K filing every public company and certain other companies must file. Since these reports are public, anyone and everyone can view them. Other US states either have regulations that are being/have been amended to cover cybersecurity incidents, or are creating new legislation to make disclosure mandatory for any companies that do business within that state or territory. The European Union and other nations/coalitions are also either strengthening reporting regulations or implementing new regulations specifically around cybersecurity incident reporting.


The practical upshot of this is that significantly more incidents are becoming public knowledge that would not have been publicly reported previously. Incidents that would have been “swept under the rug” in previous years are now becoming public knowledge quickly, leading to a marked uptick in the number of known attack victim organizations. While this number is certainly not enough to account for the total increase in attacks, it has most definitely increased the number of reported attacks over the last few years. The combination has lead to massive increases in year-over-year ransomware reports, leading to dramatic news reporting on the problem. As the issue becomes more sensational, everyone hears about it more often and with more volume.


So, while it is true that the total number of ransomware attacks has increased sharply due to a combination of the rise Ransomware-as-a-Service and the use of automation in threat actor activities, it is important to also realize some of the sensational numbers are attributable to companies being required to talk about the problem more than in the past. In total, the issue of ransomware and other cybercrime is taking a much bigger share of the public interest – which is a very good thing – but we must look at all of the factors that lead to such numbers to more fully understand what’s going on. 

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