Unlike scenes from books or movies where shadowy figures hold manila envelopes containing information or photographs pertaining to an unsuspecting victim, few of us in the real world have to concern ourselves with blackmail or ransom attempts. That isn’t to say that these things do not happen in real life; they of course do, as was the case in the recent ProtonMail Distributed-denial-of-Service (DDoS) and ransom attack. ProtonMail, an encrypted e-mail provider made popular by the American television series “Mr. Robot”, received an e-mail explaining what would happen if a payment was not made to the assailants. On November 3, 2015 an attack was launched which left ProtonMail’s webserver unavailable for fifteen minutes. On November 4, 2015 another attack was experienced this time of a more a more sophisticated and intense nature. ProtonMail, like any organization experiencing an attack like this, took the necessary measures to mitigate the risks associated with further attacks by working with their datacenter and upstream providers. What happened next ultimately lead to the payment of the ransom by ProtonMail.

The attackers began launching attacks on ProtonMail’s datacenter and upstream providers; specifically targeting their infrastructures. In doing so, the attackers were able to cause significant damage in the form of outages, which impacted hundreds of other companies aside from ProtonMail according to their blog. As a result of receiving a great deal of pressure from third parties, ProtonMail paid the ransom (15 bitcoin, or approximately $6,066 USD at the time it was paid or approximately $5,774.85 USD at the time of this writing) to the following bitcoin address 1FxHcZzW3z9NRSUnQ9Pcp58ddYaSuN1T2y.

The team at ProtonMail is still working with many third parties (e.g. LEO, Swiss CERT etc.) to determine who was behind the attacks and whether there were, as some have suggested, more than one attacker involved due to the differences in scope and intensity observed between the two attacks. The Swiss CERT has called out at least one small group, the Armada Collective, as likely being responsible for the first attack based on their known modus operandi of extorting “high value targets”.  Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest) has rated the threat posed by the Armada Collective as generally having a “Low” severity though it is noteworthy. For more information on our assessment of the Armada Collective see Figure 1: Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest) SearchLight (now ReliaQuest’s GreyMatter Digital Risk Protection) Profile for the Armada Collective.

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Figure 1: Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest) SearchLight (now ReliaQuest’s GreyMatter Digital Risk Protection) Profile for the Armada Collective

Others have speculated that due to intensity and scale of the second attack that only a very well funded criminal organization or nation state could be responsible for such activity however, there is no information available (publicly) that supports that theory.  Time will tell whether or not the pervading theory in this case proves true. But what about other incidents where DDoS extortion takes place? Recent history has proven that through the actions of the groups like DD4BC and others, that DDoS extortion is a very effective and lucrative. Additionally, these extortion groups and those purveying DDoS wares and services such as those seen in Figure 2: DDoS Service by KingPins below are growing and maturing much faster than previously thought.

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Figure 2: DDoS Service by the KingPins

Tools and services such as those being sold by the KingPins are available throughout criminal forums in the surface and dark web. Because of their ready availability, almost anyone can be transformed overnight into a DDoS extortionist with very little in the way of knowledge or effort required. Prices are, in many respects negotiable (as seen in figure 2) and offer a variety of guarantees including guaranteed downtimes. So what can an organization do to better protect themselves from DDoS extortion? The first and foremost thing, as Martin McKeay of Akamai recommends, is to have a plan. Having a plan enables the organization to execute without spending precious cycles making decisions, which could (have been addressed well in advance of any type of incident.

Organizations should possess the ability to detect when they are experiencing a DDoS attack and be ready to address any and all subsequent demands made of you for ransom. This may involve establishing contact with an anti-DDoS solutions vendors (hardware or SaaS driven) in addition to having a process in place which includes securing the approval and write off of decision makers, executives, legal, law enforcement, and the board in those cases where a ransom is demanded and a decision needs to be made with respect to paying or not. Organizations will also need to be prepared to work with their service providers (e.g. data centers, ISPs etc.) in order to ensure that mitigation measures are being taken on all fronts. In some cases, this proves to be a bittersweet exercise. Nevertheless, it is an important measure to have accounted for in your organizational plan.  Unfortunately there is no easy answer to the question of what to do in the event your organization experiences extortion and ransom demands. This is true whether the extortion demands stem from a DDoS attack or from the deployment of ransomware such as Multilocker or CryptoWall in your environment. The important thing to remember, aside from developing and having a plan of action, is to remain calm and use your best judgment in mitigating your risks.