Blog | Jan 15, 2020

Trouble at Travelex

Like most New Year’s resolutions, most go off the rails by February. The hackers behind the Travelex attack didn’t wait that long to sound the GDPR and privacy alarms, and bring into light, new implications around transparency and timely notifications of data breaches. Plagued by a sophisticated ‘hands on keyboard’ ransomware attack, Travelex initially declared their global system outage as maintenance downtime via message on their website. One week later, they replaced the initial message with a press release announcing a cyberattack as of December 31, 2019.

The company’s press release on January 7, 2020 explains that their ongoing investigation confirmed that the ransomware attack was Sodinokibi (also referred to as REvil) which appeared in the wild back in April 2019. While the press release suggests that the attack occurred one week prior to public notification, the BBC news suggests the firm was compromised for up to six months, and hackers were demanding £4.6 million GBP ($6 million USD) to recover and preserve the data from further exposure and resale on the dark web.

Various sources have suggested that Travelex failed to patch its Pulse Secure VPN servers until early November 2019 despite repeated warnings flagged by the U.S. CISA, the U.S. National Security Agency and the UK's National Cybersecurity Centre in October 2019 that that the vulnerabilities were being targeted and exploited by REvil.

This event confirms that ransomware attacks have transitioned from opportunistic nuisance, to something more sinister. This event demonstrates the destructive capability of systemic ransomware designed to cripple large organizations, rather than exploit small sums of cryptocurrency from individuals. We’ve left the age of transactional crime, and now live in one of targeted strikes seeking large sums of money (in this case, seven figures large).

Money is not the only thing at risk. The firm’s reputation is in jeopardy as well as having a major impact on its clients’ operations. In the UK, Travelex often acts as the ‘silent partner’ for many banks and finance organisations that provide foreign currency exchange. Since the incident took place, more than a dozen UK highstreet banks are unable to provide online travel money services, and some customers that ordered currency prior to the incident have been left out of pocket (and the Travelex website still remains down today - January 15, 2020).

The hackers also threatened Travelex with the exposure and wholesale dumping of stolen data if the firm fails to pay the extortion fee. And maybe that’s the point. It’s no longer simplistic ransomware, but bigfish extortion. It’s a new game and one that is no longer about returning files, but rather about preventing exposure of information that compromises the reputation of the victim.

As the company resorted to pen and paper to operate, critical PII (personal financial information like credit card numbers, date of birth and other sensitive information) are at risk of exposure. The criminals have the company in a terminal grip. Often healthcare organizations are subjected to aggressive ransoms, but not in this amount, and not with such a venom. Like Travelex, attacks on healthcare organizations rely on the fact that patient care is predicated on timely treatment, and hospitals cannot afford downtime and therefore pay up. One report even goes as far as to correlate loss of life to ransomware attacks.

With the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) engaged and GDPR alarms ringing, it will be interesting to see how both Travelex and the data protection agencies proceed in this case. It seems criminals have been honing and socializing their tactics, and now it’s about paying extortion fees, and heading down the oft avoided slippery slope of negotiating with terrorists. The criminals have them in check. Your move ICO and Travelex.

The system outage at Travelex was masked with a ‘planned maintenance’ message which is understandable on the part of Travelex, but brings into light the ethics of such a choice. By masking the real event, stealing any opportunity from consumers and customers to take protective actions like putting holds are credit cards, setting up credit monitoring with financial institutions, and changing passwords. Time is of the essence, and knowledge is power. It’s another factor that should be reviewed with the ICO and law enforcement (and the courts) weighing in on this potential deceit.

This New Year’s event exposes evolved issues brought on by targeted ransomware attacks. Should firms pay the ransom to avoid the exposure of personal consumer data? Is it acceptable for firms to mask attacks with system outages notices rather than breach notifications? How will the ICO enforce decisions around timely notification, obfuscation, and preservation of data privacy through extortion fees? We shall see over the coming year. Perhaps 2020 will play to it’s visual acuity reference and provide clear vision on how companies must proceed in the event of such extortion attacks.

Mark Sangster

Mark Sangster

Vice President and Industry Security Strategist

Mark is a cybersecurity evangelist who has spent significant time researching and speaking to peripheral factors influencing the way that legal firms integrate cybersecurity into their day-to-day operations.