The True Cost of Ransomware is Much More Than Just the Ransom

NEWS ANALYSIS: While the FBI has one set of numbers for the financial impact of ransomware, new figures from publicly traded companies shows the impact to be significantly higher.

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Ransomware has been a growing internet security attack tactic over the course of the past year, with multiple groups attempting to quantify the financial impact. 

In a ransomware attack, an attacker is able to install malware that encrypts data on a victim's system. The victimized system will then have a message on it, instructing the user to pay the ransom, in order to decrypt the data. While ransom payments are a core part of the ransomware model, they are likely the smallest financial component in terms of the actual impact that organizations face in the aftermath of an attack.

In June, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) released its' 2016 Internet Crime Report, providing statistics on $1.33 billion in victim losses from a total of 298,728 complaints about various internet-related crimes that were reported during the year. Looking specifically at ransomware, the FBI received 2,673 complaints, with a total of $2.4 million in loses.

At the Black Hat USA security conference in July, Google researchers presented the results of a study into the ransomware payment environment. Using machine learning analysis techniques, Google calculated that at least $25 million has been paid in ransomware payments by victims, from the beginning of 2014 until the end of the second quarter of 2017.

What neither the FBI nor the Google study measured however was the actual impact on business operations from a ransomware attack. While there has been some anecdotal evidence that the recovery costs from a ransomware attack can be high, the best evidence so far comes from the second quarter report of shipping company Maersk, which was released on Aug. 16.

"In the last week of the quarter we were hit by a cyber-attack, which mainly impacted Maersk Line, APM Terminals and Damco," Søren Skou, CEO of A.P. Moller-Maersk said in a statement. 

Maersk was impacted by the NotPetya ransomware attack that first hit the Ukraine on June 27. While the initial reports indicated that the impact of NotPetya was somewhat limited, Maersk was in fact strongly impacted.

"Business volumes were negatively affected for a couple of weeks in July and as a consequence, our Q3 results will be impacted," Skou stated. "We expect that the cyber-attack will impact results negatively by USD $200-300M."

That's up to $300 million dollars of impact from a ransomware attack, which is more than 10 times what Google reported as being the total amount paid in ransomware attacks to date.

FedEx's TNT Express business unit was also impacted by the NotPetya attack in a way that will have a financial cost.

"Given the recent timing and magnitude of the attack, in addition to our initial focus on restoring TNT operations and customer service functions, we are still evaluating the financial impact of the attack, but it is likely that it will be material," FedEx wrote in a a 10K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on July 17. "Although we cannot currently quantify the amounts, we have experienced loss of revenue due to decreased volumes at TNT and incremental costs associated with the implementation of contingency plans and the remediation of affected systems."

The impact and true cost of ransomware is much more than just the ransom payments made by victims, as FedEx and Maersk have now clearly demonstrated. Business impact via disruption of operations is a non-trivial financial concern. 

Ransomware is not just a nuisance issue, it's a business continuity and availability issue that can have a significant material impact.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.