Digital Insecurity: What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

Published by Chris Jenkins in Technology on February 3, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article was originally featured in EDGE Magazine, a publication featuring entrepreneurs and business professionals collectively collaborating to empower and support like-minded professionals.

Picture this: you arrive to work on a normal Friday morning. You sit down at your desk, log on to your computer and instead of your normal desktop, you’re presented with a large warning screen indicating your hard drive has been locked by a government agency for possessing illegal pornography, and it lists files that have supposedly been detected on your computer. Strangely, it indicates that you can resolve this issue immediately by paying a fine of $300. Is this a virus, you wonder? Browsing your hard drive, you see that it’s true. Every file on your machine has been encrypted and is unable to be accessed.

Knowing you don’t browse questionable content (especially on a work computer), you send a request to IT for help with what appears to be a virus. That’s when the other shoe drops: your IT tech confirms that you’ve been hit with ransomware, and what’s more, that there’s absolutely nothing they can do to help. Your only option is to fork over the cash for a digital key to unlock your hard drive.

This may seem like some Hollywood hackers movie scenario, but it’s been increasingly playing out in real life. In 2015, 58 percent of corporate computers had been attacked with some form of malware. The number of ransomware type attacks doubled. Think you’re safe because you’re using a Mac? Think again. The KeRanger ransomware discovered earlier this year specifically targets OSX. Don’t count on law enforcement to help either; at the 2015 Cyber Security Summit, Joseph Bonavolonta (the FBI’s top dog in their Cyber Crimes division) offered this advice:

“The ransomware is that good…to be honest, we often advise people just to pay the ransom.”

They should know; law enforcement agencies themselves have been the victim of ransomware. In 2014, it became national news when the Dickson County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee ended up forking over cash to unlock computers in their office after both the FBI and the U.S. military were unable to provide any substantive assistance.

It only gets worse. If one machine in your network is infected, common sharing protocols may distribute the malware around your office. That was the case in a South Carolina school district in early April last year. Within minutes, 60 percent of the district’s computers had been infected. It cost administrators nearly $10,000 in ransom to recover their data from the criminals responsible, delivered via the digital currency Bitcoin. It was a painful price to pay, but the only pragmatic option according to county administrators, who noted:

“You get to the point of making the business decision: Do I make my end-users — in our case teachers and students — wait for weeks and weeks and weeks while we restore servers from backup? Or do we pay the ransom and get the data back online more quickly?”

The future of ransomware only brings greater fears. As internet-connected devices and vehicles slowly become more commonplace, ransomware could effectively disable that shiny new Tesla, crank that Nest thermostat to 100 degrees, or shut out inventory management and logistics systems. For both businesses and consumers, a strong understanding of digital security is no longer something you can leave to the resident nerd. It must become as common knowledge as how to use a cell phone.

So, let’s start with the basics: how did this thing get on my machine to begin with? It generally begins with clicking something you shouldn’t:

  • Visiting a compromised website
  • Clicking on online advertising
  • Opening sketchy email attachments
  • Clicking links in Facebook Messenger
  • Downloading “cracked” or “free” versions of paid software
  • Installing browser toolbars

While there are legitimate use cases for most of these scenarios, if you’re engaging in one of them, you need to be extra careful. Do you trust this source with all of the data on your computer? Are you absolutely positive this email or message is from whom it purports to be from? If you’re not 100 percent sure, don’t click it. These are general safety rules that apply to all computer viruses, but with the rise of ransomware, they are increasingly more important.

Next, you need to take additional steps to protect all data on your computer or network, and just like a good football team, you need both an offense and a defense. Starting with the defense:

  • Every machine in your network needs to have a strong antivirus with updating enabled.
  • Your network controllers need to have a strong firewall, hardware solution preferred.
  • Set strict policies for computer users in your office regarding the use of software downloaded from the web, browser toolbars, and the use of unlicensed software.

On the offensive side, take proactive steps to protect your data integrity, and make sure you never lose it:

  • When possible, use cloud or network solutions to store data physically separate from your machine. Collaborative services like Google Docs allows for you to interact with your data without physically storing it, making it essentially bulletproof to ransomware attacks.
  • Use an offsite backup service like CrashPlan to fully back up your hard drive, including OS. This will allow you to wipe your computer and restore in case of a comprehensive infection.

By storing your mission-critical data outside of the local machine, you remove any possibility for it to be damaged or encrypted, and you put the responsibility for security in the hands of systems administrators who are far more qualified to handle the responsibility.

Finally, if you do find that you’ve been compromised, you may be forced to make a payment, but do take the steps to report the ransomware to the FBI’s Cyber Crimes unit at http://www.ic3.gov. The more instances law enforcement is able to investigate, the greater the chances of a permanent solution being developed (and, potentially, that a few of these scumbags get locked up).

Once upon a time, it was almost en vogue to claim ignorance surrounding technical security, but these days, that ignorance can cost you in time, money, and lost productivity, not to mention general aggravation. If you want to continue to take advantage of technological advancements, there’s no longer an excuse. Get up to speed on security, before the opening scenario in this article becomes your personal nightmare.

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