What Makes Ransomware the Worst Type of Malware

In a SecTor keynote, F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen explains why ransomware is so bad and what the Russians really have in mind for the U.S.

Mikko Hypponen

TORONTO—In a keynote address at the SecTor security conference here, Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at security firm F-Secure, gave a stark assessment of the state of modern ransomware and how it's one of the worst types of malware he's seen in 25 years of analysis.

Hypponen (pictured) told the capacity crowd that when he first started looking at malware back in 1991 it was delivered on a floppy disk. Much has changed in IT over the last 25 years, though Hypponen noted that there are some lessons he has learned that have remained unchanged.

"Over the last 25 years, I have learned that complexity is the enemy of security," Hypponen said. "The more layers of features, protocols and code, the more likely there is a vulnerability in there somewhere."

Vulnerabilities are just bugs, bugs are just mistakes made by programmers, programmers are human beings and human beings will always make mistakes, he said. Hypponen added that there is a need to build simpler systems with fewer features, but that's not what has happened over the last 25 years of IT innovation. Rather, increasing volumes of features are added, making technology more complex as well as more difficult to protect.

The biggest malware risk today is ransom Trojans, better known as ransomware. As opposed to past forms of malware, which were disruptive and sometimes destructive as well, ransomware operations are being run as a business by cyber-criminals, Hypponen said. Victims of a ransomware attack can't do their work, as access to files is restricted and encrypted. Adding insult to injury, all modern ransomware is able to detect network shares and will attempt to encrypt all the files that the user can access, he said.

Currently, F-Secure is tracking approximately 110 criminal gangs that make all their money from ransomware operations.

"The 110 gangs are not all from Russia," Hypponen said. "Some are from the Ukraine."

Ransomware as a Service

Among the interesting aspects of ransomware is that there are multiple groups that now offer ransomware operations as a service.

"Outsiders that couldn't program their way out of a paper bag can run a ransomware franchise," Hypponen said.

The purpose of ransomware is to make money, which is why Hypponen isn't a fan of victims paying the ransom. In his view, the more people who pay the ransom, the more victims there will be in the future.

'Honest Criminals'

The most successful ransomware operations are what Hypponen refers to as "honest criminals." A key promise of paying a ransom is that the criminals will in fact restore the victim's data. That's important to the continued success of such attacks. By following through on their promise to give victims their data back, ransomware operators are helping to ensure that future victims will pay as well.

There has also been a shift in recent years with the rise of nation-state-backed attacks, though Hypponen told the SecTor audience that most companies are not targeted by nation-states. Where nation-state involvement appears to be very active now is in regard to the upcoming U.S. election, with allegations that Russia is somehow trying to influence the vote.

"I don't belief Russia is trying to help elect [presidential candidate Donald] Trump," Hypponen said. "Russia just wants to make the U.S. weaker as a nation and make the loser believe that somehow the vote was rigged and hacked."

Beyond the risk of nation-states and ransomware threats, another big change in the works for IT security has to do with the emerging internet of things (IoT) landscape.

"For years computer security people thought the job was to secure computers," Hypponen said. "Today when everything is being controlled by computers and software, it's no longer our job to secure computers; it's our job to secure society, since society is powered by computers and software."

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.