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Smashing Security podcast #185: Bieber fever, Roblox, and ransomware

Smashing Security podcast #185: Bieber fever, Roblox, and ransomware

Who’s been dressing Robox players up in red baseball caps? Which ransomware victim’s negotations got spied on by the media? And should Jason Bieber think twice before touching his hat? Oh, and we need to talk about squirrels…

All this and much more is discussed in the latest edition of the award-winning “Smashing Security” podcast by computer security veterans Graham Cluley and Carole Theriault, joined this week by John Hawes


Graham Cluley – @gcluley
Carole Theriault – @caroletheriault


John Hawes

Show notes:

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We’ve seen an ugly trend recently of tech news stories and cybersecurity firms trumpeting claims of ransomware attacks on companies large and small, apparently based on little more than the say-so of the ransomware gangs themselves. Such coverage is potentially quite harmful and plays deftly into the hands of organized crime.

Often the rationale behind couching these events as newsworthy is that the attacks involve publicly traded companies or recognizable brands, and that investors and the public have a right to know. But absent any additional information from the victim company or their partners who may be affected by the attack, these kinds of stories and blog posts look a great deal like ambulance chasing and sensationalism.

Currently, nearly two dozen ransomware crime gangs have erected their own blogs to publish sensitive data from victims. A few of these blogs routinely issue self-serving press releases, some of which gallingly refer to victims as “clients” and cast themselves in a beneficent light. Usually, the blog posts that appear on ransom sites are little more than a teaser — screenshots of claimed access to computers, or a handful of documents that expose proprietary or financial information.

The goal behind the publication of these teasers is clear, and the ransomware gangs make no bones about it: To publicly pressure the victim company into paying up. Those that refuse to be extorted are told to expect that huge amounts of sensitive company data will be published online or sold on the dark web (or both).

Emboldened by their successes, several ransomware gangs recently have started demanding two ransoms: One payment to secure a digital key that can unlock files, folders and directories encrypted by their malware, and a second to avoid having any stolen information published or shared with others.

KrebsOnSecurity has sought to highlight ransomware incidents at companies whose core business involves providing technical services to others — particularly managed service providers that have done an exceptionally poor job communicating about the attack with their customers.

Overall, I’ve tried to use each story to call attention to key failures that frequently give rise to ransomware infections, and to offer information about how other companies can avoid a similar fate.

But simply parroting what professional extortionists have posted on their blog about victims of cybercrime smacks of providing aid and comfort to an enemy that needs and deserves neither.

Maybe you disagree, dear readers? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.


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Watching a $1.14 million ransomware negotiation between hackers and scientists searching for COVID-19 treatments

Watching a $1.14 million ransomware negotiation between hackers and scientists searching for COVID-19 treatments

An anonymous tip-off to BBC News enabled them to watch in real-time as an American medical university attempted to negotiate with the hackers who had infected its systems with ransomware.

As reporter Joe Tidy describes, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) was attacked by the notorious NetWalker ransomware on the first day of June.

Netwalker message

Netwalker message

A ransom demand left by the gang directed the university dedicated to medical research to a payment page on the dark web, where they could find an FAQ, an offer of a “free” sample of a decrypted file (proving decryption was possible), and the ability – just like so many legitimate websites – to have a live chat with a support operator.

Netwalker chat message. Source: BBC News

Netwalker chat message. Source: BBC News

NetWalker chat message. Source: BBC News

Of course, negotiating the safe recovery of your encrypted files is so much more stressful when the webpage also contains a countdown timer, threatening to either double the ransom demand or publish stolen data onto the internet if time runs out.

Six hours after asking, the University of California San Francisco must have been relieved to have been given more time, and for news of the attack to be removed from NetWalker’s public website.

Netwalker chat message. Source: BBC News

Netwalker chat message. Source: BBC News

NetWalker chat message. Source: BBC News

However, the hackers demanded $3 million, and were less than impressed when whoever was at the UCSF’s end of the conversation begged them to accept $780,000 citing the “financially devastating” damage caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. UCSF has been conducting antibiotic clinical trials in the fight against COVID-19.

Netwalker chat message. Source: BBC News

Netwalker chat message. Source: BBC News

NetWalker chat message. Source: BBC News

Ultimately, after what BBC News describes as a “day of back-and-forth negotiations,” the two sides agreed to a final payment of $1,140,895. 116.4 bitcoins were transferred to cryptocurrency wallets owned by the NetWalker gang the following day, and the university received the decryption software required to recover its affected data.



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Speaking to BBC News, UCSF explained why it had decided to give in to its digital extortionists:

“The data that was encrypted is important to some of the academic work we pursue as a university serving the public good.

“We therefore made the difficult decision to pay some portion of the ransom, approximately $1.14 million, to the individuals behind the malware attack in exchange for a tool to unlock the encrypted data and the return of the data they obtained.

“It would be a mistake to assume that all of the statements and claims made in the negotiations are factually accurate.”

Nobody likes the idea of cybercriminals making money out of successful ransomware attacks. Everytime one organisation decides to pay its extortionists it incentivises malicious hackers to launch yet more ransomware attacks against unsuspecting targets.

At the same time, I can understand how organisations that feel they have no other option might make the difficult decision that it’s better to pay the criminals than have their organisation further disrupted, or its data exposed on the internet.

The University is now said to be assisting in the FBI’s investigation into the attack, and restoring its affected systems.

One final thought for you all: whose interest is it in to tip-off BBC News about a ransomware negotiation as it happens?

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The inside story of the Maersk NotPetya ransomware attack

The inside story of the Maersk NotPetya ransomware attack

The shipping conglomerate Maersk, hit by the NotPetya ransomware in June 2017, estimated that it cost them as much as $300 million in lost revenue.

Gavin Ashton was an IT security guy working at Maersk at the time of the attack. He’s now written an in-depth article about what happened.

I want to help protect other folks from making these same mistakes, because there’s a lot of what seems to be defeatist wisdom out there; Yes, it is inevitable that you will be attacked. It is inevitable that one day, one will get through. And obviously, you should have a solid contingency plan in place in case of the worst. But that’s not to say you don’t attempt to put up a damn good fight to stop these attacks in the first case. Just because you know the bad actors are coming, doesn’t mean you leave your front door open and make them a cup of tea when they walk in. You could just lock the door.

Staying with the home analogy; Yes, there’s security cameras and wizard cloud-connected ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices and all kinds of expensive measures and widgets, but a lot of organisations fail simply on the basics. Lock the damn door.

It’s a good read, and strongly recommended if you’re responsible for securing your enterprise from malware attack.

And make sure to check out this “Smashing Security” podcast we recorded back in June 2017, at the time of the outbreak:



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DoppelPaymerFlorenceGuest blogKnoxvilleMalwareRansomware

The City of Florence in northern Alabama has agreed to pay a ransom of US $300,000 worth of Bitcoin to hackers who compromised its computer systems and deployed ransomware.

At an emergency meeting this week, the Florence City Council unanimously voted to give in to the extortionists’ demands and pay the cybercriminals behind the attack.

Embarrassingly for the council workers, they were first warned that hackers had infiltrated a Windows 10 PC connected to their IT systems in late May by security blogger Brian Krebs.

Krebs says that he alerted “numerous officials” that criminals specialising in deploying ransomware had compromised their network and – if not stopped – might launch a more widespread attack.

It appears, however, that the Florence city council failed to successfully expel the hackers, who activated their DoppelPaymer ransomware on the city’s IT systems on June 5th.

At the time, Florence Mayor Steve Holt told the media that the city’s email system had been shut down, but that no ransom had been demanded, and officials did not believe that any information had been lost.

Less than a week later the City of Florence realises that things are more serious. As Mayor Steve Holt told journalists, money from the city’s insurance fund will be used to pay the hackers’ ransom demands:

“We began taking every precaution we could possibly take, and then on June 5 it actually hit us. It appears they may have been in our system since early May – over a month going through our system.” “It’s a roll of the dice for us to say ‘nope we’re not doing that,’ and if they actually have our information in their possession they can send it publicly. This unfortunately is a response on our part to pay to make sure they delete it.”

Quite how the council will be able to 100% confirm that the hackers have permanently erased any data they have stolen is unclear, but the gang behind the DoppelPaymer ransomware is reputed to keep its word and not release data after a ransom has been paid.

The same DoppelPaymer ransomware has recently struck NASA contractor Digital Management Inc (DMI) and previously hit the city of Torrance, in the South Bay region of Los Angeles.

Unfortunately Florence is not the only US city to find itself dealing with the aftermath of a ransomware infection this week.

The city of Knoxville, Tennessee, shut down its computer systems after ransomware encrypted its systems in the early hours of Thursday.

In social media posts, the public were advised that court sessions were cancelled as a result of the computer network being offline.

A post on the city’s official website, meanwhile, warns the city’s 180,000 residents that “City online services are currently unavailable.”

A spokesperson said that the FBI had been informed of the attack, which was first spotted by employees of the fire department at approximately 4:30am on June 11th.

Knoxville officials have declined to make public the size of the ransom demand they have received, and no information has been shared about the type of ransomware that was involved.

Cities and government departments are on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to ransomware attacks.

The risk when you give in to an extortionist’s ransomware demand is that you are encouraging other criminals to launch similar attacks. A strong message is sent out to other attackers that organisations are prepared to pay a ransom if hit by ransomware. And that, inevitably, means more ransomware attacks for all of us to fend against.

But at the same time, attacked councils may feel that there is less of a financial hit paying their ransomware attacker than trying to recover from an infection. And if the ransomware attack has also stolen data from an organisation – which the most pernicious strains of ransomware do today – then you may feel that you are protecting your citizens better by at least trying to stop their possibly sensitive data from being leaked to the outside world.

In July last year, a resolution was passed by the the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) agreeing to “stand united against paying ransoms in the event of an IT security breach.”

Judging by the decision made unanimously this week by the emergency meeting of the City of Florence, Alabama, that is a resolution which some cities are choosing to ignore.

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alex holdenCrowdStrikeDoppelPaymerEmsisoftFabian WosarHold SecurityLatest WarningsRansomwareSteve PriceYuliana Bellini

In late May, KrebsOnSecurity alerted numerous officials in Florence, Ala. that their information technology systems had been infiltrated by hackers who specialize in deploying ransomware. Nevertheless, on Friday, June 5, the intruders sprang their attack, deploying ransomware and demanding nearly $300,000 worth of bitcoin. City officials now say they plan to pay the ransom demand, in hopes of keeping the personal data of their citizens off of the Internet.

Nestled in the northwest corner of Alabama, Florence is home to roughly 40,000 residents. It is part of a quad-city metropolitan area perhaps best known for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio that recorded the dulcet tones of many big-name music acts in the 1960s and 70s.

Image: Florenceal.org

On May 26, acting on a tip from Milwaukee, Wisc.-based cybersecurity firm Hold Security, KrebsOnSecurity contacted the office of Florence’s mayor to alert them that a Windows 10 system in their IT environment had been commandeered by a ransomware gang.

Comparing the information shared by Hold Security dark web specialist Yuliana Bellini with the employee directory on the Florence website indicated the username for the computer that attackers had used to gain a foothold in the network on May 6 belonged to the city’s manager of information systems.

My call was transferred to no fewer than three different people, none of whom seemed eager to act on the information. Eventually, I was routed to the non-emergency line for the Florence police department. When that call went straight to voicemail, I left a message and called the city’s emergency response team.

That last effort prompted a gracious return call the following day from a system administrator for the city, who thanked me for the heads up and said he and his colleagues had isolated the computer and Windows network account Hold Security flagged as hacked.

“I can’t tell you how grateful we are that you helped us dodge this bullet,” the technician said in a voicemail message for this author. “We got everything taken care of now, and some different protocols are in place. Hopefully we won’t have another near scare like we did, and hopefully we won’t have to talk to each other again.”

But on Friday, Florence Mayor Steve Holt confirmed that a cyberattack had shut down the city’s email system. Holt told local news outlets at the time there wasn’t any indication that ransomware was involved.

However, in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity Tuesday, Holt acknowledged the city was being extorted by DoppelPaymer, a ransomware gang with a reputation for negotiating some of the highest extortion payments across dozens of known ransomware families.

The average ransomware payment by ransomware strain. Source: Chainalysis.

Holt said the same gang appears to have simultaneously compromised networks belonging to four other victims within an hour of Florence, including another municipality that he declined to name. Holt said the extortionists initially demanded 39 bitcoin (~USD $378,000), but that an outside security firm hired by the city had negotiated the price down to 30 bitcoin (~USD $291,000).

Like many other cybercrime gangs operating these days, DoppelPaymer will steal reams of data from victims prior to launching the ransomware, and then threaten to publish or sell the data unless a ransom demand is paid.

Holt told KrebsOnSecurity the city can’t afford to see its citizens’ personal and financial data jeopardized by not paying.

“Do they have our stuff? We don’t know, but that’s the roll of the dice,” Holt said.

Steve Price, the Florence IT manager whose Microsoft Windows credentials were stolen on May 6 by a DHL-themed phishing attack and used to further compromise the city’s network, explained that following my notification on May 26 the city immediately took a number of preventative measures to stave off a potential ransomware incident. Price said that when the ransomware hit, they were in the middle of trying to get city leaders to approve funds for a more thorough investigation and remediation.

“We were trying to get another [cybersecurity] response company involved, and that’s what we were trying to get through the city council on Friday when we got hit,” Price said. “We feel like we can build our network back, but we can’t undo things if peoples’ personal information is released.”

A DoppelPaymer ransom note. Image: Crowdstrike.

Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer at Emsisoft, said organizations need to understand that the only step which guarantees a malware infestation won’t turn into a full-on ransomware attack is completely rebuilding the compromised network — including email systems.

“There is a misguided belief that if you were compromised you can get away with anything but a complete rebuild of the affected networks and infrastructure,” Wosar said, noting that it’s not uncommon for threat actors to maintain control even as a ransomware victim organization is restoring their systems from backups.

“They often even demonstrate that they still ‘own’ the network by publishing screenshots of messages talking about the incident,” Wosar said.

Hold Security founder Alex Holden said Florence’s situation is all too common, and that very often ransomware purveyors are inside a victim’s network for weeks or months before launching their malware.

“We often get glimpses of the bad guys beginning their assaults against computer networks and we do our best to let the victims know about the attack,” Holden said. “Since we can’t see every aspect of the attack we advise victims to conduct a full investigation of the events, based on the evidence collected. But when we deal with sensitive situations like ransomware, timing and precision are critical. If the victim will listen and seek out expert opinions, they have a great chance of successfully stopping the breach before it turns into ransom.”

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July 2020