2016 was a busy year in cyber-security. We saw the continued hacking of high-profile websites, the dumping of personal data online, bank heists carried out using stolen credentials from the SWIFT inter-bank network, the emergence of botnets made up of everyday objects used to paralyse parts of the Internet and speculation about hacks designed to undermine the US elections (you can read more here). But for me personally, the security headline of the year would be 'the dramatic rise of ransomware'. There has been a huge growth in crypto-ransomware in particular (click here for an infographic summarising the key facts about ransomware).
Our research shows the rate of ransomware attacks increased in 2016 from one attack every 20 seconds to one every 10 seconds. 62 new ransomware families appeared last year (and a total of 54,707 variants). We also found that almost one in five consumers (17 per cent) have been affected by ransomware, with six per cent having their files held to ransom by cybercriminals as a result. This was underlined just last year when I spoke on The One Show about the issue of ransomware - a hairdressing salon based in Glasgow had all of its documents, from 15 years of business, encrypted and was held to ransom.
Unfortunately, this is testimony to the success attackers have achieved with this type of malware and demonstrates the growing impact that that cybercrime can have on our everyday lives. The truth is that it can - and it might happen to you. Though you can never be 100 per cent secure from a breach of your personal data, by taking the correct precautions, you can greatly reduce your chances of being a victim of cybercrime. I would suggest the following recommendations to help ensure you're ready to mitigate the effects of a ransomware attack in particular:
• Make regular backups of your data. You'll not only avoid having to pay a ransom to cybercriminals, but it will ensure you don't lose data if your PC fails. But make sure you store your backup on a drive that's not connected to your computer - if you leave it connected (e.g. a USB that's always plugged-in), ransomware will encrypt the files on the backup drive too.
• Use a reliable Internet security solution and do not turn off the advanced security features that are included, unless advised to do so by the vendor's technical support staff. Usually these are features that enable the detection of new ransomware based on its behaviour. Keep the software on your PC up-to-date. Keep the automatic update feature turned on, and don't ignore requests from these applications for the installation of updates. If an application doesn't update automatically, get into the habit of using the program's 'check for updates' feature regularly.
• Be cautious about the files you download from the Internet and receive via e-mail. Only download files from trusted sources (e.g. don't download unofficial apps, just because the official one hasn't been released in your region yet). If you're at all unsure about an attached file, or link, pick up the phone and ask the person who it's from if they are really the one who has sent it to you. It's also key to instil this thinking into each member of your family if they are also using the device!
• If you're files have been encrypted with ransomware and you are asked to a pay a ransom, don't do it. Every bitcoin (or other forms of electronic payment) transferred into the hands of criminals builds their confidence in the profitability of this kind of cybercrime, which then leads to the creation of new ransomware. Sometimes it is possible to create a decryption tool for certain kinds of ransomware, check with your security vendor to see if they can help. You can also check No More Ransom. This joint initiative of the National High Tech Crime Unit of the Netherlands' Police, Europol's European Cybercrime Centre, Intel Security and Kaspersky Lab was set up in July 2016, the aim is to help victims of ransomware retrieve their encrypted data without paying cybercriminals.
• Finally: spreading ransomware and trying to extort money from people are actions that are defined as criminal in most countries around the globe. Report an attack to the police in order to start an investigation.
Unfortunately, the trend of ransomware is set to continue throughout 2017, with cybercriminals seeking the opportunity to make a quick and dirty profit. By following the above steps, you can reduce the likelihood that you'll fall victim to ransomware and line the pockets of cybercriminals this year!