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April 06, 2016

Your Ransomware Payments may fund ISIS and could get you Indicted

Ransomware is one of the fastest growing types of cybercrimes and it will likely become the predominant type of online crime. To understand why, I refer you to something called Shockey’s Law, popularized by my good friend Richard Shockey… “The answer is Money; what was the question?”

Just one type of this malware, Crypto Wall has cost users over $325 million since it was released in 2015. CryptoLocker is yet another variant as is TeslaCrypt.

It’s easy to see how the total ransom for this type of crime can easily exceed a billion dollars per year. And if you’re a terrorist, what better way to achieve your goals than to bring death to infidels financially as well as literally? The World Trade Center was the financial heart of the west and subsequently became a target. From the perspective of ISIS, being able to go after all western companies at once via malware is a win on all fronts.

Of course there are lots of ways for malicious users to hurt your organization. Recently the Iranian government sponsored hackers who hit the west’s financial companies via DDOS and broke into the control system of a dam located in Rye, New York, near White Plains. Sadly, even though the government knows who is behind the attacks, we will likely never bring them to justice if they don’t leave Iran. Hacking credit card numbers is another way of generating revenue. Typically, once stolen, they are sold on the Dark Web. This is how Target ended up getting a $200 million dollar bill.

Ransomware is different though. Companies that aren’t prepared with proper backup procedures must pay a ransom to the hackers to get their data back. In other words, they are directly sending money to people they don’t know. It literally could be someone’s worst enemy on the other end of the anonymous bitcoin transaction.

To find out what the penalties could be for funding terrorism in this manner we reached out to the FBI press office. After a full day we haven’t heard back (we reached out a second time and will update this piece if we do.) Thankfully Cornell’s legal website has some information on the matter.

Specifically, the penalties for funding terrorism can be prison terms of up to twenty years. Your protection from this terrible fate seems to hinge upon whether you knew the money was going to fund terrorism. In other words, you can hopefully plead ignorance but who knows for sure if that’s a defense? Of course, there is a chance, the feds will never find out where your money went. But it’s likely a matter of time before the US government gets ahold of some ISIS computers and traces back the money to western companies. In fact, tens of thousands of users in Australia have already had to pay ransoms to ISIS. One wonders if this means they are on the hook if the US government decides to prosecute.

Since ISIS using CryptoLocker to fund itself is now public knowledge, every future payment should be cause for concern. This is in-part why an NBC story tells us to never pay the hackers behind ransomware. Great advice but it requires your organization to have great backups and a system in place to ensure they can be restored in a timely manner. You also need the resources to get your systems back in working order to avoid prolonged business interruption. Its worth pointing out that anomaly detection solutions can act as an early warning system – savings hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost productivity in some instances.

At best, if you aren’t prosecuted, you will likely have to live with the fact that you funded a terrorist organization who has pledged to destroy the west and has beheaded and burned many people alive. It’s a terrible position to be in… On the one hand your business is crippled and on the other, you are sending money to the worst of the worst people imaginable. Let’s hope more companies get prepared. It is likely that all organizations will get hit by a virus and with ransomware being so lucrative, we can expect more and more to be affected as time goes on. After all, it just takes one single click to potentially lock up every file on your network.

Apex Technology Services has a suite of cybersecurity solutions that help minimize the threat of viruses and ransomware primarily for companies and government entities in the New York and surrounding areas. From training to firewalls, penetration testing and anomaly detection, you should always consult with outside experts before you are hit. Quite often, we get calls from companies after they are infected. At this point there is not much that can be done if your backups aren’t perfect.


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