ransomware concept illustration with file folder on laptop secured with chain and padlock

The Case for Restricting User Permissions

The damage control for ransomware attacks exist already within every company. It’s common to find that regular users have administrative rights on their PCs, which can allow email viruses that are opened to run with administrative privilege. It’s the digital equivalent of storing large quantities of gasoline in your family home… it’s just asking for trouble! Darin Pendergraft discusses why organizations should adopt a “least privilege” access model.

The recent “Bashe attack: Global infection by contagious malware,” published by the CyRiM organization, should be required reading for all business executives. Using three possible scenarios (conservative, more aggressive and pervasive), it simulates a global malware attack to determine the overall business cost and follow-on insurance expense related to the resulting cleanup. Using these three scenarios, the report estimates the total economic loss as ranging from $85 billion to $194 billion worldwide across a variety of industries.

The report predicts the biggest losses for those industries most reliant on digital technology and interconnected systems, such as retail and financial services, but also predicts big losses for industries that are prone to using outdated IT systems, such as health care. The report clearly lays out assumptions for infection rates and related cleanup costs, which are largely based on historical evidence.

Dr. Trevor Maynard, Head of Innovation at Lloyd’s, cautions “…the reality for business is it’s not if you get attacked, but when.” Absolutely right! This is something IT security teams have been saying for years. Yet budgets for security always seem to be a low priority. So why aren’t company executives listening?

According to Andrew Mahony, Regional Director for Aon, “the global WannaCry and NotPetya events of 2017 alerted organizations to their potential susceptibility to widespread cyberattacks. There remains, however, a reluctance to move forward with the necessary risk prevention and transfer measures without a clear picture of the financial impact such an attack might cause.”

IT people often look at these attacks in terms of technology, architectures and code, which often is lost on business leaders. Putting these attacks in terms of risk, cost and liability reframes the security discussion in a way business leaders can get a handle on. So, now that we have the business leaders’ attention, what can we do to protect ourselves from these types of global, aggressive, business-crippling attacks?

One of the easiest things we can do is to rethink and reduce the permission levels we give to our employees. Here’s why: One of the critical assumptions made in the Bashe report is that an employee opens an infected email attachment, which launches malware smart enough to email a copy of itself to everyone in the employee’s email address book. In this way, a single employee infects everyone in the corporate email system and potentially hundreds of other users outside of the employee’s company.  The ransomware then begins encrypting files on all infected PCs, causing widespread business disruption. This is a reasonable assumption that we have seen in past malware and ransomware outbreaks.

The ransomware runs on the PC with the same security privileges as the user that opened the email. If that user has administrative privileges on their PC, so does the malware program. This allows it to download more files, install other malware and spread itself around. If, instead, we adopted a “least privilege” model that does not give the employee administrative control of their systems, the malware would be stopped in its tracks. The PC would still be infected and would need to be cleaned up, but the malware’s ability to spread itself to other company PCs and to encrypt files would be severely restricted.

Employees occasionally need to install software on their machines, and there are easy and safe ways to let them do that.  The IT help desk could temporarily elevate employees’ access levels, allowing them to install the needed software, then remove that access once the new software was installed and working properly.

I am optimistic that this report will get the attention of business leaders worldwide and will help them understand that the risk of widespread malware/ransomware is real, and that the possible business impact is considerable. Assume you will be breached, and build a response plan.

What would you do if your billing system were infected and had to be shut down? What about your email system? Could a single infected machine spread the infection to all of your business PCs?

Remember, it’s not if you will be attacked, it’s when! Companies that are prepared will fare the best.

Darin Pendergraft

Darin Pendergraft, Vice President of Product Marketing, STEALTHbits Technologies, is an experienced senior technology executive focused on data security and identity management who has led the product management and product marketing strategies and programs of top global technology brands.

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