United States and Spain Announce the Development of a New Capacity Building Tool to Combat Ransomware

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, announced a joint project to develop a capacity-building tool to help countries utilize public-private partnerships (PPPs) to combat ransomware. This project was developed as part of the Second International Counter Ransomware Initiative (CRI) Summit, which was convened in Washington, D.C. The CRI is a global coalition of 36 partner nations and the European Union dedicated to confronting the scourge of ransomware.

The CRI’s Public-Private Partnership (P3) Working Group, chaired by Spain, has focused on the essential need for close collaboration between governments and the private sector to address the challenges posed by ransomware. This tool will provide much needed guidance to nations around the world seeking to develop or deepen such public-private partnerships.

“Building capacity across the world is an essential aspect of our fight against ransomware,” said Brandon Wales, CISA Executive Director. “By learning from each other—public and private sector alike—and sharing that knowledge more broadly, we can effectively protect the critical infrastructure necessary to sustain not only American society, but the global institutions and networks upon which it relies.”

“Spain has the strong conviction that this project will contribute in a decisive manner to expose the most innovative state of the art of PPP best practices to fight against ransomware, said Guillermo Ardizone Garcίa, Political Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Thereby, all multi-stakeholders and partners involved in the CRI will be benefited from this line of action. Spain will actively encourage state and non-state stakeholders to join in this project poised to broadly share the PPP best practices, including creative financing schemes.”

When completed, the tool will feature a series of case studies of PPPs that have been used in the counter-ransomware fight, including those pioneered by members of the CRI P3 Working Group. The tool will highlight the features that made these efforts successful and will be designed to provide practical guidance to countries looking to implement their own PPPs as part of their national counter-ransomware efforts.

To develop the tool, the United States and Spain are partnering with the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE), a global leader in cyber capacity building that will commission experts to deliver the tool. Other CRI members have been invited to provide additional financial and practical support to the project.

UK and allies expose Iranian state agency for exploiting cyber vulnerabilities for ransomware operations

The UK and international allies have issued a joint cyber security advisory highlighting that cyber actors affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are exploiting vulnerabilities to launch ransomware operations against multiple sectors.

Iranian-state APT actors have been observed actively targeting known vulnerabilities on unprotected networks, including in critical national infrastructure (CNI) organisations.

The advisory, published by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) − a part of GCHQ − alongside agencies from the US, Australia and Canada, sets out tactics and techniques used by the actors, as well as steps for organisations to take to mitigate the risk of compromise.

It updates an advisory issued in November 2021 which provided information about Iranian APT actors exploiting known Fortinet and Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities.

They are now assessed to be affiliated to the IRGC and are continuing to exploit these vulnerabilities, as well as the Log4j vulnerabilities, to provide them with initial access, leading to further malicious activity including data extortion and disk encryption.

Paul Chichester, NCSC Director of Operations, said:

"This malicious activity by actors affiliated with Iran’s IRGC poses an ongoing threat and we are united with our international partners in calling it out.

“We urge UK organisations to take this threat seriously and follow the advisory’s recommendations to mitigate the risk of compromise.”

The NCSC urges organisations to follow the mitigation set out in the advisory, including:

- Keeping systems and software updated and prioritising remediating known exploited vulnerabilities
- Enforcing multi-factor authentication
- Making offline backups of your data

This advisory has been issued by the NCSC, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the National Security Agency (NSA), US Cyber Command (USCC), Department of the Treasury (DoT), the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) and the Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity (CCCS).

French hospital forced to transfer patients following Ransomware attack

The Centre Hospitalier Sud Francilien (CHSF) said an attack on its computer network was detected in August. The hospital has referred patients elsewhere as the cyberattack rendered various technical systems ‘inaccessible’.

The cyberattack made various systems “inaccessible” including business software, storage systems in areas such as medical imaging, and the info systems on patient admissions, according to a CHSF statement.

As a result of the attack, patients whose care requires access to the hospital’s technical systems have been redirected to other hospitals in the area. Those who present themselves to the emergency room are being evaluated by CHSF’s medical staff, and being transferred to other institutions if necessary.

The hospital, which serves an area of around 600,000 people, said that measures have been taken to care for those already hospitalised there. However, the “exceptional situation” is expected to have an impact on the operating room, as it is closely linked to the affected technical platform.

French paper Le Monde reports that a ransom of $10m was demanded by the hackers responsible.

Cyber Attack on Greece’s Gas Operator

A group of cyber extortionists called Ragnar Locker claimed responsibility for the recent cyber-attack against the National Gas System Operator (DESFA) in Greece.

DESFA announced that it had suffered a cyber-attack on part of its IT infrastructure, which resulted in a “confirmed impact on the availability of certain systems and the possible leakage of a number of files and data.”

DESFA is responsible for the operation, management, exploitation, and development of the National Natural Gas System and its interconnections.

The statement said that IT services were proactively deactivated to limit any potential spillage and to investigate the incident while ensuring the adequate operation of the national gas supply system at all entry and exit points of the country without any complications.

The FBI has linked the Ragnar Locker group to attacks on at least fifty-two organizations and companies related to critical infrastructure in the US over the last two years.

2021 Trends Show Increased Globalized Threat of Ransomware

In 2021, cybersecurity authorities in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom observed an increase in sophisticated, high-impact ransomware incidents against critical infrastructure organizations globally. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and the National Security Agency (NSA) observed incidents involving ransomware against 14 of the 16 U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the Defense Industrial Base, Emergency Services, Food and Agriculture, Government Facilities, and Information Technology Sectors. The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) observed continued ransomware targeting of Australian critical infrastructure entities, including in the Healthcare and Medical, Financial Services and Markets, Higher Education and Research, and Energy Sectors. The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC-UK) recognizes ransomware as the biggest cyber threat facing the United Kingdom. Education is one of the top UK sectors targeted by ransomware actors, but the NCSC-UK has also seen attacks targeting businesses, charities, the legal profession, and public services in the Local Government and Health Sectors.

Ransomware tactics and techniques continued to evolve in 2021, which demonstrates ransomware threat actors’ growing technological sophistication and an increased ransomware threat to organizations globally.

This joint Cybersecurity Advisory—authored by cybersecurity authorities in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom—provides observed behaviors and trends as well as mitigation recommendations to help network defenders reduce their risk of compromise by ransomware.

Full report can be downloaded here >>

Joint global ransomware operation sees arrests and criminal network dismantled

A four-year operation across five continents has disrupted a ransomware cybercrime gang and seen the arrest of seven suspects believed to be behind global malware crime operations.

Codenamed ‘Quicksand’ (GoldDust) and carried out by 19 law enforcement agencies in 17 countries, the transcontinental operation saw officers collect and examine intelligence to establish a global threat picture about attacks by ransomware families - particularly GandCrab and Revil-Sodinokibi - and the suspects behind them.

The organized crime group that used these malwares is known for breaking into business and private networks using a range of infiltration techniques, and then deploying ransomware against their victims. The ransomware then encrypts files which are then used to blackmail companies and people into paying huge ransoms.

The suspects arrested during Operation Quicksand are suspected of perpetrating tens of thousands of ransomware infections and demanding more than EUR 200 million in ransom
Tangible results: multiple arrests worldwide

Intelligence exchanged during the operation enabled:

- Korean law enforcement to arrest three suspects in February, April and October;
- Kuwaiti authorities to arrest a man thought to have carried out ransomware attacks using the GandGrab ransomware;
- Romanian authorities to arrest two individuals suspected of ransomware cyber-attacks and believed to be responsible for 5,000 infections as well as half a million euros profit in ransom payments;
- The arrest of a man believed to be responsible for the Kaseya ransomware attack, thought to have been carried out last July by the REvil gang with more than 1,500 people and 1,000 businesses affected worldwide.

“Ransomware has become too large of a threat for any entity or sector to address alone; the magnitude of this challenge urgently demands united global action which INTERPOL can uniquely facilitate as a neutral and trusted global partner,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“Policing needs to harness the insights of the cyber security industry to identify and disrupt cyber criminals as part of a true coalition, working together to reduce the global impact of ransomware cybercrime,” added the Secretary General.

A powerful global coalition

A joint INTERPOL-Europol operation, Quicksand was coordinated from INTERPOL’s Cyber Fusion Centre in Singapore where stakeholders shared live intelligence in an interactive and secure environment via INTERPOL’s global network and capabilities.

Through INTERPOL’s Gateway project, INTERPOL’s private partners Trend Micro, CDI, Kaspersky Lab and Palo Alto Networks also contributed to investigations by sharing information and technical expertise.
Gateway boosts law enforcement and private industry partnerships to generate threat data from multiple sources and enable police authorities to prevent attacks.

Bitdefender supported operations by releasing tailor-made decryption tools to unlock ransomware and enable victims to recover files. These innovative tools enabled more than 1,400 companies to decrypt their networks, saving them almost EUR 475 million in potential losses.

Joint global ransomware operation sees arrests and criminal network dismantled

A four-year operation across five continents has disrupted a ransomware cybercrime gang and seen the arrest of seven suspects believed to be behind global malware crime operations.

Codenamed ‘Quicksand’ (GoldDust) and carried out by 19 law enforcement agencies in 17 countries, the transcontinental operation saw officers collect and examine intelligence to establish a global threat picture about attacks by ransomware families - particularly GandCrab and Revil-Sodinokibi - and the suspects behind them.

The organized crime group that used these malwares is known for breaking into business and private networks using a range of infiltration techniques, and then deploying ransomware against their victims. The ransomware then encrypts files which are then used to blackmail companies and people into paying huge ransoms.

The suspects arrested during Operation Quicksand are suspected of perpetrating tens of thousands of ransomware infections and demanding more than EUR 200 million in ransom

Intelligence exchanged during the operation enabled

- Korean law enforcement to arrest three suspects in February, April and October;
- Kuwaiti authorities to arrest a man thought to have carried out ransomware attacks using the GandGrab ransomware;
- Romanian authorities to arrest two individuals suspected of ransomware cyber-attacks and believed to be responsible for 5,000 infections as well as half a million euros profit in ransom payments;
- The arrest of a man believed to be responsible for the Kaseya ransomware attack, thought to have been carried out last July by the REvil gang with more than 1,500 people and 1,000 businesses affected worldwide.

“Ransomware has become too large of a threat for any entity or sector to address alone; the magnitude of this challenge urgently demands united global action which INTERPOL can uniquely facilitate as a neutral and trusted global partner,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“Policing needs to harness the insights of the cyber security industry to identify and disrupt cyber criminals as part of a true coalition, working together to reduce the global impact of ransomware cybercrime,” added the Secretary General.

A joint INTERPOL-Europol operation, Quicksand was coordinated from INTERPOL’s Cyber Fusion Centre in Singapore where stakeholders shared live intelligence in an interactive and secure environment via INTERPOL’s global network and capabilities.

Through INTERPOL’s Gateway project, INTERPOL’s private partners Trend Micro, CDI, Kaspersky Lab and Palo Alto Networks also contributed to investigations by sharing information and technical expertise.
Gateway boosts law enforcement and private industry partnerships to generate threat data from multiple sources and enable police authorities to prevent attacks.

Bitdefender supported operations by releasing tailor-made decryption tools to unlock ransomware and enable victims to recover files. These innovative tools enabled more than 1,400 companies to decrypt their networks, saving them almost EUR 475 million in potential losses.

KPN, McAfee, S2W helped investigations by providing cyber and malware technical expertise to INTERPOL and its member countries.

Operation Quicksand continues to supply evidence that is feeding into further cybercrime investigations and enabling the international police community to disrupt numerous channels used by cybercriminals to launder cryptocurrency and commit ransomware crime.

With the combined global financial impact in ransom payments from ransomware families believed to be within the billions of dollars and thousands of victims worldwide, INTERPOL’s private partners and member countries work together to provide support to victims hit by the ransomware.

Research from Chainalysis found that criminals made USD 350 million in 2020 from ransomware payments, representing an increase of 311 per cent in one year. Over the same period, the average ransom payment increased by 171 per cent, according to Palo Alto Networks.

12 targeted for involvement in ransomware attacks against critical infrastructure

A total of 12 individuals wreaking havoc across the world with ransomware attacks against critical infrastructure have been targeted as the result of a law enforcement and judicial operation involving eight countries.

These attacks are believed to have affected over 1 800 victims in 71 countries. These cyber actors are known for specifically targeting large corporations, effectively bringing their business to a standstill.

The actions took place in the early hours of 26 October in Ukraine and Switzerland. Most of these suspects are considered high-value targets because they are being investigated in multiple high-profile cases in different jurisdictions.

As the result of the action day, over USD 52 000 in cash was seized, alongside 5 luxury vehicles. A number of electronic devices are currently being forensically examined to secure evidence and identify new investigative leads.

The targeted suspects all had different roles in these professional, highly organised criminal organisations. Some of these criminals were dealing with the penetration effort, using multiple mechanisms to compromise IT networks, including brute force attacks, SQL injections, stolen credentials and phishing emails with malicious attachments.

Once on the network, some of these cyber actors would focus on moving laterally, deploying malware such as Trickbot, or post-exploitation frameworks such as Cobalt Strike or PowerShell Empire, to stay undetected and gain further access.

The criminals would then lay undetected in the compromised systems, sometimes for months, probing for more weaknesses in the IT networks before moving on to monetising the infection by deploying a ransomware. These cyber actors are known to have deployed LockerGoga, MegaCortex and Dharma ransomware, among others.

The effects of the ransomware attacks were devastating as the criminals had had the time to explore the IT networks undetected. A ransom note was then presented to the victim, which demanded the victim pay the attackers in Bitcoin in exchange for decryption keys.

A number of the individuals interrogated are suspected of being in charge of laundering the ransom payments: they would funnel the Bitcoin ransom payments through mixing services, before cashing out the ill-gotten gains.
International cooperation

International cooperation coordinated by Europol and Eurojust was central in identifying these threat actors as the victims were located in different geographical locations around the world.

Initiated by the French authorities, a joint investigation team (JIT) was set up in September 2019 between Norway, France, the United Kingdom and Ukraine with financial support of Eurojust and assistance of both Agencies. The partners in the JIT have since been working closely together, in parallel with the independent investigations of the Dutch and U.S. authorities, to uncover the actual magnitude and complexity of the criminal activities of these cyber actors to establish a joint strategy.

Eurojust established a coordination centre to facilitate cross-border judicial cooperation during the action day. In preparation of this, seven coordination meetings were held.

Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) hosted operational meetings, provided digital forensic, cryptocurrency and malware support and facilitated the information exchange in the framework of the Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce (J-CAT) hosted at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague.

CISA and FBI observe the increased use of Conti ransomware

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have observed the increased use of Conti ransomware in more than 400 attacks on U.S. and international organizations. (See FBI Flash: Conti Ransomware Attacks Impact Healthcare and First Responder Networks.) In typical Conti ransomware attacks, malicious cyber actors steal files, encrypt servers and workstations, and demand a ransom payment.

To secure systems against Conti ransomware, CISA, FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA) recommend implementing the mitigation measures described in this Advisory, which include requiring multi-factor authentication (MFA), implementing network segmentation, and keeping operating systems and software up to date.

Technical Details

While Conti is considered a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) model ransomware variant, there is variation in its structure that differentiates it from a typical affiliate model. It is likely that Conti developers pay the deployers of the ransomware a wage rather than a percentage of the proceeds used by affiliate cyber actors and receives a share of the proceeds from a successful attack.

Conti actors often gain initial access to networks through:

- Spearphishing campaigns using tailored emails that contain malicious attachments or malicious links;
- Malicious Word attachments often contain embedded scripts that can be used to download or drop other malware—such as TrickBot and IcedID, and/or Cobalt Strike—to assist with lateral movement and later stages of the attack life cycle with the eventual goal of deploying Conti ransomware.
- Stolen or weak Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) credentials
- Phone calls;
- Fake software promoted via search engine optimization;
- Common vulnerabilities in external assets.

In the execution phase, actors run a getuid payload before using a more aggressive payload to reduce the risk of triggering antivirus engines. CISA and FBI have observed Conti actors using Router Scan, a penetration testing tool, to maliciously scan for and brute force routers, cameras, and network-attached storage devices with web interfaces. Additionally, actors use Kerberos attacks to attempt to get the Admin hash to conduct brute force attacks.

Conti actors are known to exploit legitimate remote monitoring and management software and remote desktop software as backdoors to maintain persistence on victim networks. The actors use tools already available on the victim network—and, as needed, add additional tools, such as Windows Sysinternals and Mimikatz—to obtain users’ hashes and clear-text credentials, which enable the actors to escalate privileges within a domain and perform other post-exploitation and lateral movement tasks. In some cases, the actors also use TrickBot malware to carry out post-exploitation tasks.

According to a recently leaked threat actor “playbook,” Conti actors also exploit vulnerabilities in unpatched assets, such as the following, to escalate privileges and move laterally across a victim’s network.

Remote working putting organisations at risk of ransomware

CERT NZ says the majority of ransomware attacks occur through poorly configured remote access systems, which businesses use to allow staff to access systems from outside the office.
While there are a range of these in use, one of the most commonly used is Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), with over 2,500 identified in New Zealand. RDP has a number of weaknesses, which means when it is used over the internet it can be exploited by attackers, and is a leading contributor to the ransomware incidents that CERT NZ receives.
“It’s essential that organisations urgently review their remote access systems, and make sure these systems are as secure as they can be. You may need to talk to your IT team or service provider about how to do this,” says Michael Shearer, Principal Advisor – Threats and Vulnerabilities at CERT NZ.
CERT NZ is partnering with internet service providers to contact organisations that use internet-exposed RDP to provide advice on how they can make remote working more secure.
“Regardless of what technology organisations use to enable remote working, it’s important to keep your system up to date and enable two-factor authentication for logins.”
As RDP is often exploited by attackers to gain access to an organisation’s network, CERT NZ recommends organisations consider other options to enable remote working, such as a virtual private network (VPN). Good VPN solutions support two-factor authentication, which adds an extra layer of security, and are designed to be used over the internet.
More broadly, CERT NZ is concerned about the growing impact ransomware attacks are having on New Zealand.
“Recent events have brought to light the devastating effects a ransomware attack can have on an organisation. There’s been an increasing trend of these types of attacks globally over the past 18 months, and they’re only going to continue.”
CERT NZ has seen an increase in ransomware reports in the second quarter of 2021 (April to June), compared to the first quarter of the year. Reaching a total of 30 reports, this is the highest number of ransomware reports made to CERT NZ within one quarter.
“These figures do not paint a complete picture of the extent of ransom attacks in New Zealand. These numbers only reflect what has been reported to us, however conversations with our industry partners indicate there are a lot more attacks happening.”
CERT NZ will soon be releasing more guidance for organisations about how to protect themselves against ransomware.
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