There have been further increases in “sophisticated, high-impact ransomware incidents” coming from Russia and other former Soviet states during 2021, Britain, the US and Australia said in a joint review of cyber-extortion trends.
Universities and schools were one of the top sectors targeted in the UK last year, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said, as well as businesses, charities, law firms, councils and the NHS. Hackers are increasingly offering services or exploits “for hire”.
Lindy Cameron, the chief executive of NCSC, said ransomware – where cybercriminals seize control of IT systems and demand payment to hand them back – was “a rising global threat” and called on organisations to review their defences.
Hackers typically come from Russia or are Russian speakers, with the west accusing Moscow of turning a blind eye to cyber-attacks. The shutting down of the notorious REvil gang last month by Russia’s FSB spy agency is understood not to have had any impact on incident levels.
KP Snacks, the maker of Hula Hoops and McCoy’s crisps, warned earlier this month that it was struggling to supply stores after a ransomware attack. It said supply disruption would last until “the end of March at the earliest”.
In November, an attack on a supplier to the Labour party led to Labour losing access to some of its membership data. The supplier had refused to pay a ransom, leading to some data being permanently lost.
No figures were put on the level of increase in attacks during 2021, although last October spy agency GCHQ said UK ransomware incidents had doubled. But the joint advisory did say hackers were diversifying because “the criminal business model of ransomware is now well established”.
Some cybercriminals specialised in ransom negotiations; others sought to offer victims “a 24/7 help centre” to facilitate prompt extortion payments. Ransoms demanded vary by the size of the victim and the greed of the criminals, although figures of £1m or more are not unusual.
It is not illegal in the UK for businesses to pay to regain access to their IT systems, and while there has been a debate in government about the issue, the situation is not expected to change. Criminalising British businesses who have been targeted by Russian hackers is not considered an attractive option.
In the US, the FBI, NSA and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said they had seen a shift away from “big-game hunting” – the targeting of high-profile organisations – although this was not the case in the UK or Australia.
Some of the American effect may be a response to complaints made by the president, Joe Biden, directly to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, after several high-profile attacks, and a growing US willingness to disrupt hacker activity.
Last May, fuel supplies in the US south-east were disrupted after an attack on the energy supplier Colonial Pipeline; the company paid a ransom of $4.4m, although half was subsequently recovered the US authorities.
Attackers gained entry by trying to lure people into clicking on malicious links in emails, brute force or exploiting software vulnerabilities, the joint warning said. Remote working in response to the pandemic meant such attacks would “likely remain popular”, the three countries’ cyber agencies added.
Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor