Register For Our Mailing List

Register to receive our free weekly newsletter including editorials.

Home / 428

Ransomware threatens home, office and national security

Tobias Vernon of the UK owns two small galleries that sell 20th-century ceramics and artworks. Thanks to marketing efforts, the business has almost 50,000 Instagram followers.

In May 2021, an email appeared from Instagram congratulating the business for getting a ‘blue tick’, which bestows on the account ‘authentic presence’. Vernon clicked the link in the email and logged in. Not long after, a message soon appeared:

“We have seized control of your Instagram account …We require US$1,000 to grant you your account back.”

Even the hackers want to be 'trustworthy'!

Vernon eventually paid US$750 in bitcoin to Russians, who released the account. But get this. Three days later, Vernon got an Instagram message from a bakery in Australia that had been hacked by the same group. The baker had been told to contact Vernon for a Tripadvisor-style testimonial that the hackers were trustworthy, so to speak, in that they would release the kidnapped device when paid.

Such traumas are proliferating because the malware-based crime known as ransomware is reaching menacing proportions. Criminally installed encryption that is reversed only by ransom is rising "almost exponentially” in the words of FBI Director Christopher Wray because the virtual private networks that enable working from home have made business systems more vulnerable.

US cyber-security firm Mimecast found that 61% of the 1,225 global IT firms it surveyed suffered ransomware attacks in 2020, a 20-point jump from 2019. The Australian Cyber Security Centre, a government agency, said ransomware attacks in Australia rose 15% last financial year to 500 incidents. Global security group, Institute for Security and Technology, estimates 2,400 ransomware victims in the US paid nearly US$350 million in ransom in 2020, a 311% jump in payments from 2019.

Ransomware “is an urgent national security risk” because “attacks on the energy grid, on a nuclear plant, waste-treatment facilities … could have devastating consequences,” the Institute cautioned. As such warnings signal, ransomware has evolved from a cottage industry into something resembling a “criminal franchising arrangement”, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

Nothing is safe from virtual kidnappers

Among notable attacks this year, in March, US insurer CNA Financial reportedly paid a then-record US$40 million ransom. In May, ransomware disrupted Colonial Pipeline, which carries 45% of US east coast fuel supplies, for 11 days until a US$$4.3 million ransom was paid for a malfunctioning decrypter key. In July, a ransomware attack on the US-based software company Kaseya was notable for gifting up to 1,500 global victims to the criminals and that the ransom demand was a record US$70 million. The biggest ransomware attack in terms of victims is still the ‘WannaCry’ one in 2017, when up to 300,000 computers were infected though the criminals received limited payment.

Ransomware is flourishing because the risk-reward calculation favours the attackers. What choice do companies have but to pay a government-protected group that might destroy their mission-critical computer system?

Paying the ransom, however, often fails as a solution. The Mimecast survey found that 52% of ransomware victims paid the ransom but only 66% of those recovered their data – the others were double-crossed.

The hope is that the risk part of the calculation might increase to the detriment of the scammers because western governments are enhancing and coordinating efforts to stop ransom attacks. Officials too are warning internet users to be better prepared for these attacks.

Eradicating the threat seems far off. Computer systems are impossible to secure and it’s expensive to try. Phishing emails and other scams too easily trick people into installing malware. Enough employees are willing to sell passwords on the ‘dark web’. Perhaps, though, the greatest asset ransomware criminals have is that cryptocurrencies are hard to trace. Many advise that a government crackdown on cryptos is the best way to reduce the menace.

The US’s unprecedented move in September to blacklist a Russian-owned crypto exchange shows Washington might agree. Something needs to tackle this mobster shakeout for using the web before the damage reaches national-security proportions.

Even if defensive efforts increase, ransomware appears unbeatable when five billion people are connected to the internet. As ransomware is online, the public seems to be unable to come to terms with the magnitude of the threat, which hampers the fightback. It’s true that ransomware would exist even if cryptos didn’t but it might barely register as a danger because how would the criminal be paid?

Some victims refuse to pay and the criminals back down. The ‘WannaCry’ attack emanating from North Korea generated little ransom for the attackers but according to the world’s anti-laundering body caused an estimated US$8 billion in damages to hospitals, banks and businesses across the world.

Attack the problem at the payment end

Such calculations show that the ransomware threat needs to be taken much more seriously. The non-virtual world provides the clue to defeating the menace. Kidnapping is a rare crime nowadays because the police caught kidnappers when they spent the cash. The solution to ransomware might be to regulate cryptocurrencies, possibly – as is the intention of China’s ban on crypto activities – to the point where they are unviable.

Such actions might mean the world loses the (disputed) benefits of cryptocurrencies. But that’s part of the cost-benefit analysis governments need to undertake to defeat the scammers that hound legitimate users of the internet, be they UK gallery owners or bakers in Australia.

 

Michael Collins is an Investment Specialist at Magellan Asset Management, a sponsor of Firstlinks. This article is for general information purposes only, not investment advice. For the full version of this article and to view sources, go to: https://www.magellangroup.com.au/insights/.

For more articles and papers from Magellan, please click here.

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Fight cybercrime by investing in cybersecurity

Cybercrime response may slow internet

banner

Most viewed in recent weeks

Lessons when a fund manager of the year is down 25%

Every successful fund manager suffers periods of underperformance, and investors who jump from fund to fund chasing results are likely to do badly. Selecting a manager is a long-term decision but what else?

2022 election survey results: disillusion and disappointment

In almost 1,000 responses, our readers differ in voting intentions versus polling of the general population, but they have little doubt who will win and there is widespread disappointment with our politics.

Now you can earn 5% on bonds but stay with quality

Conservative investors who want the greater capital security of bonds can now lock in 5% but they should stay at the higher end of credit quality. Rises in rates and defaults mean it's not as easy as it looks.

30 ETFs in one ecosystem but is there a favourite?

In the last decade, ETFs have become a mainstay of many portfolios, with broad market access to most asset types, as well as a wide array of sectors and themes. Is there a favourite of a CEO who oversees 30 funds?

Betting markets as election predictors

Believe it or not, betting agencies are in the business of making money, not predicting outcomes. Is there anything we can learn from the current odds on the election results?

Meg on SMSFs – More on future-proofing your fund

Single-member SMSFs face challenges where the eventual beneficiaries (or support team in the event of incapacity) will be the member’s adult children. Even worse, what happens if one or more of the children live overseas?

Latest Updates

Superannuation

'It’s your money' schemes transfer super from young to old

Policy proposals allow young people to access their super for a home bought from older people who put the money back into super. It helps some first buyers into a home earlier but it may push up prices.

Investment strategies

Rising recession risk and what it means for your portfolio

In this environment, safe-haven assets like Government bonds act as a diversifier given the uncorrelated nature to equities during periods of risk-off, while offering a yield above term deposit rates.

Investment strategies

‘Multidiscipline’: the secret of Bezos' and Buffett’s wild success

A key attribute of great investors is the ability to abstract away the specifics of a particular domain, leaving only the important underlying principles upon which great investments can be made.

Superannuation

Keep mandatory super pension drawdowns halved

The Transfer Balance Cap limits the tax concessions available in super pension funds, removing the need for large, compulsory drawdowns. Plus there are no requirements to draw money out of an accumulation fund.

Shares

Confession season is upon us: What’s next for equity markets

Companies tend to pre-position weak results ahead of 30 June, leading to earnings downgrades. The next two months will be critical for investors as a shift from ‘great expectations’ to ‘clear explanations’ gets underway.

Economy

Australia, the Lucky Country again?

We may have been extremely unlucky with the unforgiving weather plaguing the East Coast of Australia this year. However, on the economic front we are by many measures in a strong position relative to the rest of the world.

Exchange traded products

LIC discounts widening with the market sell-off

Discounts on LICs and LITs vary with market conditions, and many prominent managers have seen the value of their assets fall as well as discount widen. There may be opportunities for gains if discounts narrow.

Sponsors

Alliances

© 2022 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer
The data, research and opinions provided here are for information purposes; are not an offer to buy or sell a security; and are not warranted to be correct, complete or accurate. Morningstar, its affiliates, and third-party content providers are not responsible for any investment decisions, damages or losses resulting from, or related to, the data and analyses or their use. Any general advice or ‘regulated financial advice’ under New Zealand law has been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892) and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. For more information refer to our Financial Services Guide (AU) and Financial Advice Provider Disclosure Statement (NZ). You should consider the advice in light of these matters and if applicable, the relevant Product Disclosure Statement before making any decision to invest. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product’s future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a professional financial adviser. Articles are current as at date of publication.
This website contains information and opinions provided by third parties. Inclusion of this information does not necessarily represent Morningstar’s positions, strategies or opinions and should not be considered an endorsement by Morningstar.

Website Development by Master Publisher.