Malware & Ransomware Protection

The Escalating Battle for Your Sensitive Data

Understanding the Rising Threat of Sophisticated Encryption in Ransomware

rectangle Written by: Anne Gotay rectangle 2 5 min read

In the digital era, data security is of paramount importance. As technology becomes increasingly integrated into our daily lives, cybercriminals continually develop new tactics to exploit vulnerabilities. One of the most concerning trends is the rise in ransomware attacks, where attackers encrypt and hold data hostage for ransom. As a data security company, our mission is to help you understand and navigate this ever-changing threat landscape.

The Surge of Encryption in Ransomware Attacks

Traditionally, ransomware attacks involve deploying malicious software, or “ransomware,” to encrypt a victim’s data. The attackers then demand a ransom, usually in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, in exchange for the decryption key necessary to regain access to the data. These attacks can target individuals, businesses, and government agencies alike. Since then, ransomware attacks have turned to double extortion. This is a newer, more insidious form of ransomware attack that has been gaining popularity among cybercriminals. 

Double extortion takes this one step further. Before encrypting the victim’s data, the attackers first exfiltrate or steal a copy of it. After the data is encrypted and held hostage, the criminals demand a ransom not only to decrypt the data, but also to prevent them from publishing or selling the stolen data on the dark web. This additional threat puts even more pressure on the victims to pay the ransom. Even if they have backups of their data, the risk of sensitive information being made public or sold to the highest bidder can be a significant concern, especially for organizations facing severe reputational or regulatory fines, or lawsuits as a result of a data breach.

In recent years, we’ve observed an alarming increase in the prevalence of encryption in ransomware attacks. According to the Sophos State of Ransomware 2023 Report, “the encryption rate is the highest (76%) since Sophos started publishing this annual report in 2020 at 73%”. Encryption techniques employed by cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, rendering data recovery nearly impossible without paying the ransom.

The Dark Side of Progress: The Business Perils of Advanced Ransomware Encryption 

The evolution of ransomware encryption techniques is a significant cause for concern, as it has several serious implications for organizations:

  1. Increased difficulty in data recovery: With more advanced encryption methods, it becomes increasingly challenging for cybersecurity professionals to develop and provide decryption tools for victims. In many cases, victims may be left with no choice but to pay the ransom if they hope to regain access to their data.
  2. Higher ransom demands: As the encryption techniques used by cybercriminals become more sophisticated, they may feel emboldened to demand larger ransoms, knowing that the victims’ chances of recovering their data without paying are slim.
  3. Escalation of cyber warfare: The advancement of ransomware attacks highlights the ongoing escalation in cyber warfare. Cybercriminals are continually honing their skills and refining their methods, forcing cybersecurity professionals to stay vigilant and adapt their defensive strategies accordingly.

Outsmarting Cybercriminals: Effective Strategies to Defend Your Sensitive Data

While the growing sophistication of ransomware encryption techniques is a genuine threat, you can take several steps to drastically reduce the blast radius and safeguard your data. This starts with reworking your organization’s cybersecurity framework into a defense-in-depth approach. This involves implementing multiple layers of security controls throughout an information system. Rather than lying dormant for months and only being detected when it is too late, this strategy ensures an attack is detected early, isolated, and stopped in its tracks for comprehensive protection rather than causing collateral damage. To reduce the likelihood of a ransomware attack, or to reduce the blast radius when an attack occurs, consider the following to protect your sensitive data:

  1. Queryable or In-Use Encryption 

Keeping data encrypted throughout its lifecycle drastically reduces the data’s attack surface. Queryable or in-use encryption that keeps data protected not only at rest or when it is in motion, but also when it is being analyzed. Traditional encryption solutions encrypt data only at rest or in motion, but as soon as the data is accessed, it becomes decrypted and thereby vulnerable. By ensuring sensitive data is never decrypted, data is rendered unreadable and useless to an attacker, further removing his or her ability to sell your data on a black market.

  1. Granular Encryption Capabilities
    Most vendors will encrypt all your structured or unstructured data. While this sounds appealing, in reality this approach causes high latency, ultimately impacting user experience. In addition, organizations spend on average 30% more on data storage fees. By using a modern encryption solution that only encrypts your most sensitive data, you can restore the user experience back to normal, scale, and save drastically on data storage costs. Another benefit is the ability to enforce access control to specific columns, which greatly reduces your odds of reporting on and spending your team’s cycles on false positives.
  2. Role-Based Access Controls (RBAC)
    Data Security Platforms that enable your organization to implement RBAC lets your organization decide which users can see what data at the granular (field level). This ensures sensitive data is accessed only by authorized users or applications. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is a critical component of a strong cybersecurity framework and can significantly help protect sensitive data and reduce the threat of ransomware attacks. RBAC operates on a fundamental principle of cybersecurity – the principle of least privilege, which means that a user should have only the bare minimum privileges necessary to perform their job functions. Under RBAC, access rights are assigned based on the role of the user within the organization. This helps ensure that sensitive data is only accessible to those who truly need it, reducing the potential ‘attack surface’ for ransomware. In the event of a breach, this could limit the spread of the ransomware, as infected users would only have access to a limited set of data. Moreover, by limiting the number of people who have access to sensitive data, RBAC also minimizes the risk of internal threats, whether they be accidental or malicious.
  3. Data Detection and Response (DDR)
    Look for a data security platform (DSP) that also offers real-time threat detection and response. By monitoring your data at all times, down to the specific user or application changes, access requests, or copies, organizations not only have an audit trail to help them stay or get compliant, but they also develop a baseline of user behavior. Combining this data with advanced machine learning (ML) techniques to immediately detect any abnormal or malicious behavior allows an organization to send real-time alerts of potential threats. A select few data security platforms also offer Data Detection and Response (DDR), with the capability of not only detecting, but also stopping any malicious activity in its tracks. Here, it is important to look for a platform that not only detects signature-based or known attacks, but also zero-day or net new ransomware attacks. The benefit of such a comprehensive platform is immense, the blast radius is drastically reduced, granular forensics allow for surgical recovery or corrupted files, allowing you to reduce downtime from months to minutes.
  4. Scale from Data Security to Data Security Posture Management (DSPM)
    Until recently, data security was rolled under other cybersecurity initiatives, without its own category and without the necessary attention required to keep sensitive data safe. Having masking, tokenization, or traditional encryption techniques sufficed. Soon encryption became a necessary evil, avoided as long as possible because of its complexity, difficulty to implement, and disruptiveness to users. With the shift of storage from on prem, legacy storage to cloud, hybrid cloud, and multi-cloud environments, data security is now front and center stage when it comes to IT teams’ priorities. 

With that, even Gartner has taken notice, they have created a new category for data security that is called Data Security Posture Management or DSPM. In a nutshell, it stands for a data security platform (DSP) that encompasses all aspects involved in keeping data secure, from identification and classification and a combination of data visibility, risk and compliance along with data security controls. Having a platform that offers these capabilities allows your organization to assess their data security posture, determine where the gaps are, and solve for any exposure. 

To learn more about what to consider in a data security platform (DSP) to provide you with coverage across all areas under DSPM, reach out to Sotero for a complimentary consultation. If you’d like to see a comprehensive data security platform that provides visibility, auditability, governance, and real-time detection and response (DDR) in action, let’s talk. 


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