The Ins and Outs of Ransomware-Attacks in Sri Lanka

The Ins and Outs of Ransomware-Attacks in Sri Lanka

A few years ago, Sri Lankan enterprises were fortunate that they only had to learn about cyber-attacks, such as ransomware, through media and Tech blogs, depicting horrifying stories on how such attacks brought large enterprises to their knees. Attackers forced helpless organizations, which were large in size and significant in terms of brand, to pay massive amounts of ransom to retrieve their stolen data. These organizations were heavily dependent on information technology to carry out their work. Many of us didn’t think such attacks would hit home due to a perception that we may be less appealing to such attackers. But that has changed. The question that organizations face is not “if a cyber-attack will happen?” rather “when will a cyber-attack happen?”

Many customers have recently reached out to us when they were hit by such an attack or when they suspected they were being attacked. Therefore, we have had our fare-share of experience in helping organizations to identify, respond, protect themselves, and recover from these cyber security incidents. When there’s news of a cyber-attack close to home, customers often reach out to us and ask questions such as – What actually happened, Do you know how we can check if we will be targeted, What do we need to do to make sure we will not be victims. Taking all of this into consideration, we wanted to share our experiences in dealing with such attacks, explain how these generally happen and possible preventive measures you can take to protect your organization.

From what we’ve gathered, most of these attacks have the following major steps, which I have explained below:

1. Initial compromise
2. Privilege escalation
3. Lateral movement
4. Persistence
5. Data theft (Less Common)
6. Payload detonation

The Initial Compromise is where the attackers gain access into your network, and there could be many ways in which this could happen. It could be as easy as brute forcing a Remote Desktop (RDP) session you have opened to the Internet to help with your remote working or it could by exploiting any zero-day vulnerability (or a very recently discovered vulnerability which hasn’t been patched) of your Internet facing webserver. A few ways to reduce the risk of the initial compromise is to expose Remote Sessions via a secure remote access VPN (with multifactor authentication), make sure you regularly patch your Internet server and ensure you do not expose unwanted services to the Internet.

Once the attacker gains access to your network, they explore to understand what sort of activities can be performed on that network. In most cases, the attacker tends to perform what’s called Privilege Escalation – in simpler terms, this means they try to elevate their level of access. To do this, they would try out methods such as guessing the passwords (Yes, mycompany@123 can be a very common password) or look for passwords stored in text files (Yes, this sounds very trivial, but the truth is when administrators force you to maintain strong passwords we often resort to simple means of remembering them, i.e. text files) or more complex methods such as running exploitation tools like mimikatz to steal credentials. The higher the access the attacker gets, the more damage they can do to a network. As a preventive measure, you can always try to force users to use complex passwords and educate them on how to keep the passwords safe. You could also monitor your user activity to detect abuse and misuse.

The next step of the attack is the Lateral Movement. In other words, once the attacker gains higher privileges on your network, it starts spreading the payload to all possible victim devices to cause more harm than damaging a single machine. Many would ask what makes a ransomware attack so devastating? The answer is its behavior of launching attacks on multiple devices within a small timeframe. This is what makes them so devastating and enables them to bring down organizations within a few minutes or hours. Most attackers utilize vulnerabilities on your network (e.g. the eternalblue exploit) or they would abuse legitimate tools to spread the payload. The abuse of legitimate tools can be very hard to detect as in most cases since the activity is done in such a manner that it mimics legitimate user behavior. Therefore, it’s very difficult to differentiate if the entire activity is malicious or not without proper context. For example, consider an attacker gaining access to the server that you use to distribute software in your organization. They can use this same tool to distribute the malware as well. A few methods of detecting and preventing lateral movement would be to properly segment user privileges, make sure all your devices have UpToDate security patches, your network is properly segmented and firewalled (a common thing we see is that although you tend to protect your network from the external entities, you rarely practice segmentation internally. Hence, when a network gets compromised, it is easy for the attacker to travel within your network), monitor suspicious usage of privileged accounts and limit what privileged accounts could do in your network.

The next step of the attack would be to make themselves Persistent in your environment. Many attackers put in a lot of effort to gain access to your network and the effort is mostly proportional to the amount of security you maintain on the network. Once this is done, the attacker would hate to lose access via a reboot or change of credentials or other interruptions. Hence, they deploy methods such as using the group policy feature of windows environments, registering as a service, creating scheduled tasks, and creating new accounts to make sure they will not lose their control abruptly. A few methods of detecting and preventing such attempts would be to limit what actions user accounts can perform, monitoring suspicious user creations (e.g. users created during off hours) and monitoring group policy or other services related changes.

Before moving to the final stage of the attack, attackers may opt to steal your data – Data Theft. This isn’t a very common move, but we have witnessed some instances. If attackers sense that your data would have a substantial black-market value or that your brand image would be gravely damaged by certain information becoming public, then they would decide to exfiltrate your data. A common method of stealing data could be uploading the files to a file share site (it’s very common for administrators to allow file sharing sites to make their day-to-day work easy but keep in mind attackers too could exploit these same paths). The methods of preventing or minimizing such data loss would be to implement Rights Management Systems (this will help you to make sure that even if the data is exfiltrated the attacker cannot use it), implementing Data Loss Prevention Systems (will detect/prevent when data is been exfiltrated) and block file sharing sites that aren’t needed for work-related matters.

The final step of the attack would be Payload Detonation. Unfortunately, it’s at this stage most organizations learn that they have been attacked, and by the time the initial panic phase has passed, a lot of damage might have been done already.

There are two types of payloads that we have come across – Cryptominer and Ransomware. Cryptominers do not exhibit any visible damages on your machines and would rather utilize your resources such as CPU and RAM to perform crypto currency mining. In such a situation, you will notice heating up, slow performance, huge bills for your cloud consumption, and abrupt crashing of your devices.

Ransomware is the more devastating type of payloads we see. It will start encrypting the commonly used file types, such as documents, videos and photos, and at the end, it will display a note stating what the attackers have done, laying out their demands, what will happen if you do not comply, and in case you want to comply how the money should be transferred. Attackers use crypto currency as the medium of paying ransoms as this method is more difficult or impossible to trace. Once the ransomware is detonated, it could effectively bring down your entire IT infrastructure. It could encrypt the end user devices as well as the servers that host your critical systems, such as application servers, database servers and email servers. In case the attacker has stolen your data, this is the stage where they will communicate to you about the ransom you need to pay to prevent the data from being released to the Internet. They would even go ahead and share a sample of the stolen data to make sure you know they’re serious.

Reputational Damage Is Far Worse Than Data Leaks

Many organizations do not opt to pay (or cannot afford to pay to recover everything that has been encrypted). Hence, they resort to restoring their systems from scratch, which takes a lot of time and effort. This, in turn, results in massive delays before the organization can get back online to serve their customers. Although the most visible damage of these attacks is done to the IT infrastructure, the biggest, unforeseen damages are to the brand identities of these organizations. News travels fast and bad news will travel even faster. No organization will ever want their names associated with such an event, and any negative media coverage and reputational damage could be made far worse by releasing your confidential data to the public domain.

A pertinent question customers ask during the final stage of an attack is “Why can’t my signature-based antivirus software detect this malicious file (payload)?” The answer is that in many scenarios, attackers change the signature (hash) of the payload before using it during the attack. Many legacy antivirus software solely depend on signature updates, and if the signature isn’t in the database, it is very easy for the attacker to bypass the antivirus tool.

Quick Detection, Quick Response and Strong Recovery Plan

Many organizations take a long time to detect such attacks. And when they do, it is sadly at the final stage of an attack. One main reason for this is that most customers utilize legacy detection mechanisms that have a very narrow visibility instead of adopting more current detection mechanisms which have a broader, in-depth view of the environment.

Based on our recent experiences and observations, many organizations take a long time to get their critical business services up and running or in other words, they take considerable amount of time to execute their business continuity plan (BCP). Moreover, although many organizations have satisfactory BCPs and DRPs (Disaster Recovery Plan) in place, almost all of them are rendered little or no use to safeguard from these attacks. Most of these plans have been formulated to protect organizations against events such as natural disasters, power failures, terrorist threats, assuming the backups will be available to start their recovery. Attackers generally know this and will start by targeting the backup systems as the initial attack points before moving toward other critical assets. This way the attackers know they can force the victim to pay up since they have no other means of recovering.

Another interesting fact about these attacks is that most of the activities happen either during early hours or during holidays. The main reason is that attackers try to leverage human weaknesses (even security operations centers are less alert during these times) to their advantage.

In summary, based on our observations, we can no longer consider Sri Lanka as a country with a very slim chance of being attacked. And these attackers seem to always find enough ways to circumvent defenses employed by most organizations and continue undetected till the very last stage. Many organizations need to rethink and plan their BCPs and DRPs to safeguard from ransomware attacks.

In the past, organizations believed in the concept of “Survival of the Strongest,” i.e. if you keep increasing your defenses, you can prevent any cyber-attack. But now, we believe organizations need to equally focus on the concept of “Survival of the Fastest,” which means it is inevitable that your organization will be targeted by an attacker sooner or later, and when that time comes, what matters is how fast you can detect, contain and recover. In other words, the speed at which you react to contain and recover from such an attack will define how your organization will withstand such an event.

Rukmal Fernando
Associate Director – Cyber Security
MillenniumIT ESP

MillenniumIT ESP: Your Complete Enterprise Solutions Provider

MillenniumIT ESP: Your Complete Enterprise Solutions Provider

MillenniumIT ESP (MIT ESP) turned 25 in January this year. Having joined the company just a few months prior as CEO, I had the opportunity to reflect on the company’s journey over the past two and a half decades along with the team. It was an inspirational and insightful exercise that highlighted the work done so far in terms of achievements by the MIT ESP team and what it was capable of doing in the future as well. Many transformational, turnkey technology projects had been successfully executed and delivered, changing not only the business landscape of our customers but also, in some instances, positively impacting the technology landscape in Sri Lanka. Over 500 customers across all industry sectors have seen MIT ESP in action through the delivery of an estimated 2,000+ projects, both locally and internationally. The trust and confidence gained has resulted in many customers continuing to work with us, some even for as long as 25 years!

The core that has held everything together to make this happen has been the 1,000+ people who have walked the floors of MIT ESP at some point in their careers. The company currently employs 400+ people with more than 60 people who have served for more than 10 years, and nearly 10 of them for more than 20 years. This is a valuable amount of experience retained in the company, mostly attributed to the culture and environment that the team has cherished and nurtured for decades. This also means that the current team possesses an incredible amount of knowledge and experience gathered from successful projects as well as important lessons from the challenging ones.

MIT ESP is widely known as one of the oldest, largest and premier Systems Integrators in Sri Lanka. However, over the years, with the accumulation of knowledge, skills and experience gained, the company now goes far beyond that of a typical Systems Integrator. This evolution prompted us to take a step back and consider how we Reimagine and Reinvent ourselves, staying true to our tagline which has done just that for our customers for years. We spent several months as a team brainstorming on what we are good at, the knowledge and skills we want to build to be competitive in the future and what is needed for us to be competitive globally as well. Bringing it all together, we felt that we needed to refresh our positioning from being a ‘Systems Integrator’ to a ‘Complete Enterprise Solutions Provider.’ In order to effectively deliver on this positioning, we have repackaged our business and restructured ourselves to ensure we focus on the relevant technologies that make us a Complete Enterprise Solutions Provider.

Expertise in Core Infrastructure has been the mainstay of the company through the experience gained as a Systems Integrator. Our Core Infrastructure unit will continue to ensure our customers are provided with optimum infrastructure solutions at optimal cost and will deliver, deploy and support everything to do with compute, networks, storage, data centers, database, middleware, etc.

We believe all enterprises have an imminent journey to the Cloud and at least a part of their technology solutions will have a heavy reliance on cloud technologies in the future. Our Cloud focus will help customers with their Cloud infrastructure, assessment and migration to the Cloud, integration with Cloud technologies and Cloud providers, and help with managing overall Cloud operations.

Cyber Security is now a key consideration regardless of the nature and extent of the IT footprint of any enterprise. Cybercrime is at its peak with remote technology interactions increasingly taking place and hackers who are continuously scouting for vulnerabilities and opportunities looking to capitalize on ransomware. Our Cyber Security expertise will support enterprises by providing consulting on security architecture, vulnerability assessments and compliance, and also providing solutions that secure endpoints, networks, applications data, etc. Managed security operations also take away the burden and overhead from enterprises of having to continuously monitor and protect their technology operations.

Enterprises are increasingly relying on applications to automate their business operations, reduce rework, increase accuracy, and improve collaboration. Our Enterprise Application focus will take a Cloud First approach to provide enterprises with the optimum technology to achieve these objectives and also provide support to manage and maintain internal applications. We also offer specialized expertise in Banking Technology, including core banking, treasury and other financial technology solutions that have been deployed and supported across many financial institutions over the years.

Capabilities in making technology intelligent has matured significantly making it very much a part of optimizing overall technology solutions. Our Intelligent Automation and Data unit focuses on providing solutions based on Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, etc. to improve overall productivity and efficiency. We combine our approach to automation with our expertise in IoT and sensors and Data to create a powerful proposition of optimizing enterprise data architecture, correlating data across systems, enabling intelligent automation of workflows, and providing better insights that ensure enterprises are enabled for data-driven decision making.

Technology has had a significant impact on new constructions where buildings, offices and cities are increasingly becoming ‘Smart’. Our focus on Smart Buildings is geared towards setting up the technology infrastructure required to make buildings smart, including structured cabling, access points, telephony, and other sensor-based components. Our expertise also extends into providing building management solutions, parking management, security and surveillance, and other technologies that optimize building operations.

Managed Services bring it all together where our fully fledged Network Operations Center (NOC) and Security Operations Center (SOC) are able to take away operational overhead of managing applications, storage, databases, security, networks or even entire IT operations based on industry best practices and standards while also providing significant cost savings. This is a proven capability with state-of-the-art facilities that remotely manage IT for many global customers.

In order to provide the above capabilities, we continue to leverage our long-standing partnerships with industry leading technology providers – a pool that has now grown to nearly a hundred. Some of the partnerships extend over two decades and have given us the opportunity to elevate our expertise and status to a level second to none in the region, resulting in the capability to deliver best-in-class solutions to our customers. We also combine this with a Customer Success based approach to delivery where we deploy an engagement model that brings in learnings from 25 years of delivering large, complex projects in order to ensure on-time delivery, quality, customer satisfaction, and commercial assurance.

As CEO of MIT ESP, I take this opportunity to thank all customers, partners and our own team for what the company has achieved over the last two and a half decades. We now look forward to supporting our customers in bigger and better ways as a Complete Enterprise Solutions Provider!

Shevan Goonetilleke
MillenniumIT ESP