The FBI isn't wrong; sometimes you will have to pay the ransom

It might make you feel dirty, but paying could be the best bet in some situations

Last week, during the 2015 Cyber Security Summit in Boston, Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said that the FBI's advice for some Ransomware attacks is to pay the ransom. Immediately, some security professionals took offense at his remarks, but the bigger picture is that payment might be the only option.

Let's look at things in context. The debate over this topic starts with a story written by the Security Ledger.

Bonavolonta, who is the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s CYBER and Counterintelligence Program at the Boston field office, made his comments while discussing Ransomware, particularly CryptoWall.

While commenting on how advanced the malware is, such as the fact that it used strong encryption (2048-bit RSA) and can rapidly infect an entire system or network share, Bonavolonta said that when the "ransomware is that good" the FBI will "often advise people just to pay the ransom."

"The easiest thing may be to just pay the ransom," he continued, adding that most organizations do, which is evident by the enormous amount of money made by the scheme.

While the FBI would love to wave a magic wand and reverse a CryptoWall infection, the reality is that Ransomware isn't something that can be easily defeated once it's infected a system.

Another point he stressed, was that most criminals running CryptoWall attacks are good to their word and release the files once paid.

The reason for this though is that most of the attacks are automated, so the payment and recovery are all part of the same campaign. Rarely, if ever, will you deal with the attackers themselves when recovering from a Ransomware attack.

So is paying the ransom bad advice? No, it isn't.

In fact, the advice to pay the ransom is actually a case-by-case determination as far as the FBI is concerned.

The official policy of the FBI is to not make recommendations, but to offer options. One of those options is to pay the ransom, and the reason this happens is because the infected organization has no other way to recover the files.

Earlier this year, in July, it was revealed that the Village of Ilion in central New York made ransom payments of $300 and $500 in 2014 after the comptroller's office was infected with Ransomware. The systems were essential to payroll and accounting, but because there were no solid backups, and no other recovery options available – payment was the only choice left.

In Maine, the Lincoln County sheriff's office also paid the ransom. Once more, the encrypted files were critical, but backups or other means of recovery were not available - payment was the only option. The same situation happened at the Tewksbury Police Department in Massachusetts.

Since 2013, when Ransomware started to gain serious traction as an actual threat – countless organizations have had no other option but to pay ransom.

No two Ransomware infections will be the same, so the decision to pay might not be the best solution – and if so, then the organization shouldn't pay. However, while it might make some feel dirty – if the only other option on the table is payment, then payment will be made.

If the organization has to pay ransom to get their files back, it can only blame itself for being placed in that situation to begin with. In each reported case of a ransom being paid, the issue wasn't the infection – it was a lack of recovery options.

So the FBI wasn't wrong exactly, but the issue isn't cut and dry.

Ransomware is a case-by-case, value assessment situation. How valuable are the lost files? If you can stand losing them, don't pay. Otherwise, get ready to record a loss on the books and invest in recovery options.

In addition to recovery options, meaning backups of critical systems that are taken daily and tested regularly (or system restore options), other layered defenses that will help prevent Ransomware attacks include anti-Virus, ad blockers, and awareness training. For corporate environments, a tuned firewall is a major asset as well.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about FBIRSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Steve Ragan

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place