Is Ransomware Protection Working?

Recently an organization I’m familiar with suffered a ransomware attack. A LockBit ransomware infected a workstation and spread to a few servers. The attack was contained thanks to a quick incident response, but there was one important thing: the organization had a top-notch EDR installed. It’s in the Gartner’s leader quadrant for endpoint protection platforms. And it didn’t stop it. I won’t mention names, because the point here is not to attack a particular brand, but the fact that the attackers created a different build of the LockBit codebase meant that the signature-based detection didn’t work and so the files on the endpoints were encrypted. Not only that – attackers downloaded port scanners and executed password spraying on the network, in order to pivot to the servers, without much trouble caused by the EDR.

Ransomware is the most widespread type of attack, we have a security industry that’s trying to cope with those attacks for a long time, and in 2024 it’s sufficient to just rebuild the ransomware from source in order to not get caught. That’s a problem. To add insult to injury, the malware executable was called lockbit.exe_.

I think we need to think of better ways to tackle ransomware. I’m not an antivirus/EDR in-depth expert, but I have been thinking the following: why doesn’t the operating system have a built-in anti-ransomware functionality? The malware can stop endpoint agents, but it can’t stop the OS (well, it can stop OS services or modify OS dlls, I agree). I was thinking of native NTFS listeners to detect ransomware behavior – very fast enumeration and modification of files. Then I read this article titled “Microsoft Can Fix Ransomware Tomorrow” which echoed my thoughts. It’s not that simple as the title implies, and the article goes to argue that it’s hard, but something has to be done.

This may seriously impact the EDR market – if the top threat – ransomware – is automatically contained by built-in functionality, why purchase an EDR? Obviously, there are many other reasons to do so, but every budget cut will start from the EDR. Ransomware has been a successful driver for more investment in security. To prevent putting too much functionality in the OS, EDRs can tap into the detection capability of the OS to take further actions.

But ransomware works in a very simple way. Detecting mass-encryption of files is easy. Rate-limiting it is reasonable. You may be aware, but CPUs have AES-specific instructions that improve the performance of AES encryption – the fact that these instructions are used may be a further indicator of an ongoing ransomware attack.

I think we have to tap into the lower levels of our software stack – file system, OS, CPU – in order to tackle ransomware. It’s clear that omnipotent endpoint agents don’t exist, no matter how much “AI magic” you sprinkle ontop of them in the data sheet (I remember once asking another EDR vendor on a conference how exactly their AI is working. My impression from the answer was: it’s rules).

As I said, I’m no AV/EDR expert, and I expect comments like “But we are already doing that”. I’m sure APIs like this one are utilized by AV/EDRs, but they may be too slow or too heavy to be used. And it may mean that this APIs can be optimized for the ransomware-detection usecase. I don’t have a ready answer (otherwise I’d be an EDR vendor), but I’d welcome a serious discussion on that. We can’t be in a situation where purchasing an expensive security tool doesn’t reliably solve the most prominent threat – “off-the-shelf” ransomware.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.