The risks of ransomware have been well publicised in the last few years, but cyber security analysts around the world have recently seen it evolve into a more industrialised form called Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS). Some observers have described it as a new criminal business model and even a whole new cybercriminal economy. So what is RaaS and what can be done to defend against it?

Ransomware groups are understood to use two methods of operation, either direct attack or RaaS. The latter has increased the risks for organisations trying to defend themselves because now a greater number of adversaries potentially has access to the tools they need to infiltrate IT networks. Even relatively low-skilled groups or individuals can get their hands on malicious software (malware) and direct it at whichever organisations they wish.

The three stages of a RaaS cyber-attack

RaaS can be broken down into three components:

  • The first group finds a way to breach or compromise an organisation.
  • The second develops the tools and software to break in.
  • The third carries out the infiltration, steals and/or encrypts any data and demands payment.

Each group pays fees for any services they buy from other groups and/or splits the money they make from the organisations they attack. The model spreads the workload, the risks involved and any financial rewards. There’s no new sophisticated technology here, it’s simply a different way that threat actors are working together as they amend their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs).

A new criminal business model

RaaS is a much more industrialised set-up that some analysts have even described as a new cybercriminal business model. Now that criminal groups specialise in a single area rather than attempt to manage all the stages themselves, they can invest their energy and time into mastering one specific act of the crime.

This also means that less skilled groups and those without much experience can simply purchase ready-made tools from other groups and apply them to their chosen targets. Whereas ransomware used to be opportunistic, RaaS has enabled gangs to target firms more precisely.

Harder to trace the tracks of a threat actor

The nature of the RaaS model also makes it more difficult to identify the unique signatures that cybercriminals leave behind for digital forensics teams to find. The hallmarks found following a RaaS cyber-attack will be blurred by up to three different sets of ‘fingerprints’ at the crime scene instead of the one set that would have previously provided evidence of a single group.

RaaS is still fairly new and, as with almost everything in cyber security, it’s continually evolving, so we’re bound to see new developments unfold in the coming months and years. Time will tell whether RaaS will eventually prove to be the dominant modus operandi for all cybercriminal groups or if it will only be a temporary trend that will fail to be effective for the longer term for as yet unknown reasons.

Cyber security is a risk management challenge

RaaS really shouldn’t be anything more to worry about than usual. At its heart, cyber security isn’t a technology problem. It’s a risk management problem, and one that involves people using technology, building partnerships and communicating to resolve the problem together.

The fundamental risk management practices that can be applied to cyber security will help to minimise the chances of a RaaS cyber-attack: good cyber hygiene, cyber security awareness training, offensive security, or penetration testing, and a strong Security Operations Centre (SOC) and the capability to protect the whole IT ecosystem.

Criminals always want to take the easiest route to make money, so it’s worth the effort to make it as difficult as possible for them, and to ensure that the new cybercrime economy does not pay.

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