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Will Counterattacks Stop Cybercriminals?

BY eSentire

May 10, 2022 | 5 MINS READ



Threat Intelligence

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Cybersecurity is not an IT problem to solve—it's a business risk to manage. In the Managing Cyber Risk podcast series, Mark Sangster, Cybersecurity Expert, joins other cybersecurity experts to, using the dollars-and-cents language of the C-suite, expose the issues, challenges and pitfalls which are often obscured by ones and zeroes.

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In recent months, there have been some high-profile takedowns of cybercrime operations. For example, in January, the Russian authorities announced that they had raided the hideouts of the REvil ransomware gang, seizing currency and cars, neutralizing infrastructure and arresting personnel in the process.

If that story is giving you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because the REvil group had already suffered a digital takedown when their Tor servers were seized in what was described as a “multi-country” hack-back operation.

With gangs seemingly being taken down only to pop back up a few months later, the real question becomes: Is that ultimately going to stop (cyber)crime?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

To understand why, it’s important to recognize that most private cybercrime operations (i.e., those not funded by a nation state) are run as businesses. This reality was made abundantly clear by the Conti leaks, which revealed just how much the ransomware operation has in common with ‘regular’ enterprises.

As a Wired article on the leaks stated, “The Conti ransomware gang runs like any number of businesses around the world. It has multiple departments, from HR and administrators to coders and researchers. It has policies on how its hackers should process their code, and shares best practices to keep the group’s members hidden from law enforcement.”

Like most businesses, Conti is pursuing profit balanced against risk. Unfortunately, despite the takedowns, the risks associated with pursuing cybercrime remain low. The reasons include the cross-border nature of the crime and something ranging between the indifference of, to the support from, the governments of the countries from which most attacks originate.

At the same time, the rewards of a successful cyberattack are high, especially when threat actors introduce multiple revenue streams by combining ransomware with extortion tactics.

One tactic that may help authorities is going after the services that cybercriminals use to turn the stolen data and cryptocurrencies into usable funds. In fact, law enforcement has made some major progress, dating back at least a few years:

Operations like these are extraordinarily complex and expensive, requiring significant cross-border coordination between law enforcement agencies, but they—along with advances in de-anonymizing crypto transactions—may change the economics of cybercrime.

However, the battle is far from won.

An increasingly global cyber conflict

In January, as Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released an Alert (AA22-011A) outlining the risk of Russian state-sponsored threats on the United States. This advisory foreshadowed what has now grown to be perhaps the largest-scale cyber conflict the world has ever seen:

Seen through the prism of the ongoing cyber conflict, Russia’s supposed takedown of the REvil gang may be better regarded as preemptively shutting down a Conti competitor—or perhaps even as an acquihire REvil members ahead of the invasion.

In addition to the nation-state groups, the conflict has seen vast numbers of volunteers enter the cyber fray.

Early in the war, the Ukraine’s leaders put out a call for volunteers to join an IT army—a decentralized, but nonetheless government-led unit formed as a way for Ukraine to hit back against Russian cyberattacks and is truly unprecedented in cyber combat.

Around the same time, the notorious collective Anonymous declared their support for Ukraine, and has since carried out a number of attacks—even claiming to have hacked Russia’s central bank and promising to soon release thousands of files.

Plus, in an example of ‘protestware’ (and of software supply chain risks), the author of the popular NPM package, node-ipc, added code that wipes the files of users in Russia and Belarus. Unfortunately, it only takes a small configuration error to cause harm that extends well beyond the targeted countries or entities.

The takeaway? Think globally, act locally

One apparent outcome of Russia’s invasion is a strengthening of Western alliances. On the surface, and in the long term, this may be seen as a positive result of a terrible situation. However, in the short term, it is likely to drive a deeper rift between East and West and may lead to a truly global escalation.

One actionable takeaway is that organizations should expect to feel the aftershocks of this conflict.

President Biden said as much in a recent statement: “If you have not already done so, I urge our private sector partners to harden your cyber defenses immediately by implementing the best practices we have developed together over the last year … Your vigilance and urgency today can prevent or mitigate attacks tomorrow.”

However, business leaders can do to prepare for potential attacks, including:

“If nothing else, this is a time for business leaders to dust off those incident response plans, to think about what the impact directly or indirectly might be to their business. Things have escalated dramatically, and I don’t see that ending anytime soon. You’re far better to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Mark Sangster said.

Listen to the full Managing Cyber Risk: Will Counterattacks Stop Cybercriminals? episode to hear from Mark and Steve as they discuss the takedown of REvil and arrest warrants for principals in the group, treasury sanctions, and more. eSentire is the Authority in Managed Detection and Response. eSentire’s mission is to hunt, investigate and stop cyber threats before they become business disrupting events.

To learn how eSentire can help your business reclaim the advantage, connect with a cybersecurity specialist.


eSentire, Inc., the Authority in Managed Detection and Response (MDR), protects the critical data and applications of 2000+ organizations in 80+ countries, across 35 industries from known and unknown cyber threats by providing Exposure Management, Managed Detection and Response and Incident Response services designed to build an organization’s cyber resilience & prevent business disruption. Founded in 2001, eSentire protects the world’s most targeted organizations with 65% of its global base recognized as critical infrastructure, vital to economic health and stability. By combining open XDR platform technology, 24/7 threat hunting, and proven security operations leadership, eSentire's award-winning MDR services and team of experts help organizations anticipate, withstand and recover from cyberattacks. For more information, visit: www.esentire.com and follow @eSentire.

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