Last Friday 12 May 2017, a large-scale ransomware attack affected hundreds of thousands of computers across the globe.

Aptly named ‘WannaCry’, it has caused widespread disruption to many organisations, including Nissan, FedEx and the UK’s National Health Service. According to Europol, the attack was unprecedented in scale.

Keep reading to find out what you need to know about WannaCry and other ransomware attacks, and how you can protect your business from serious disruption.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts files on your computer, preventing you from being able to use them. It can also affect files that you share with others, such as those stored on a file server or network attached storage (NAS). This is an important point, as it may take only one computer in your network to become infected in order to cause serious harm across the entire business.

Why is this malicious software called ‘ransomware’?

It’s called ransomware because in order to recover your files, you need to pay a ransom to the malware author. Normally you pay this using Bitcoin, which is untraceable.

When you pay the ransom, you will receive an unlock code which you can enter to recover your files.

How does my computer become infected?

It’s really easy. Usually you receive an email that contains an infected attachment, or a link to a website. When you open the attachment or click on the link, your computer becomes infected.

How do I know if my computer is infected?

The malware will display a message informing you that your files have been encrypted, and advising you of how to pay the $300 ransom.

What happens if I don’t pay the $300 ransom?

If you don’t pay the ransom within the required time, usually as little as 24 to 48 hours, the extortionist deletes the unlock code. It is then impossible to decrypt your files. If you have a recent backup copy of your files, you may be able to restore them from there. If you don’t have a backup, your files are lost forever.

Should I pay the ransom?

We don’t believe in rewarding people for criminal behaviour, so our answer is usually a very strong ‘No.’ However if you don’t have a recent backup, paying the ransom may be the only way to get your files back.

Although paying the $300 ransom will enable you to recover your files, it leaves a ‘backdoor’ to your computer, potentially allowing it to be hacked in the future.

How can I protect myself against ransomware?

Tip 1: Keep your operating system and application software up-to-date

Yes, Internet access is expensive in Timor-Leste. But the cost of not patching your system can be far greater.

The WannaCry attack exploited a Windows security hole that Microsoft patched on 14 March 2017. WannaCry cannot infect systems that have been patched with all the latest security fixes.

Although anti-malware software is vital, it can only work reliably when your software has been properly updated.

Tip 2: Use a leading anti-malware package and keep it up-to-date

We use and recommend Bitdefender. In our testing we have found it to be the most effective against the higher level of threats that we see in Timor-Leste.

Free anti-malware software is largely ineffective, and you should avoid it.

Tip 3: Educate your users

Security is everyone’s responsibility. Many malware attacks start with an email containing an infected attachment or a link to a malicious website.

Users should only click on links or open attachments from people that they know and trust. Unfortunately even that is not quite enough. Some malware sends emails to everyone in a user’s contact list, so the email may look legitimate. If you weren’t expecting an attachment from someone, it’s often wise to check with them before opening it.

Tip 4: Keep effective backups

In a business environment, you should backup all of your data at least every night. Backups should be stored safely off-site. We can advise you on an effective backup strategy and help you to implement it.

Tip 5: Personal devices should comply with organisational IT security policy

Most infections that we see on business networks are introduced from personal devices that belong to staff, contractors or visitors. These devices may not be correctly patched, or they may not have proper anti-malware protection. This places the business network at risk.

You can avoid these dangers by requiring that personal devices comply with your organisation’s security policy before they can be connected to the office network. A better, low-cost method is to build a separate wireless network that isolates personal devices from the business network, limiting the damage that they can cause.

There are many other options, and we can help you to choose which one will best suit your budget and requirements.

Tip 6: Go professional – implement business-grade protection

Almost all of our customers use centrally managed and monitored software updates and anti-malware protection. This avoids the totally unreliable approach of having all of your end-users managing their own updates (or disabling them entirely). In our experience, unmanaged updates simply don’t work in a business environment.

For many of our customers, we have also implemented rock-solid protection that constantly backs up changed files across the entire business.

Case study

One of our Timor-Leste customers recently fell victim to a ransomware attack which originated from a laptop belonging to an employee. Company policy permitted staff-owned devices to access personal webmail, a practice we generally recommend against. The attack originated in an infected email attachment, and it encrypted mission-critical files in the organisation’s shared network folders.

Within one hour of the attack, we had recovered 100% of their lost files, up-to-date as at 4 minutes prior to the attack. Without our business-grade data recovery solution, they would have needed to restore from the previous night’s backup. This would have taken many hours, with loss of the entire day’s work performed since the previous backup.

Our customer organisation has since tightened their security policy in line with our advice.

The best approach to security involves having multiple layers. A great deal of protection can be implemented on even a small budget.

I have a Mac. I’m safe, right?

The WannaCry ransomware exploits a specific Windows vulnerability, so it doesn’t affect Macs. However most Mac users will have noticed that Apple frequently issues security updates. All operating systems are vulnerable to malware attacks. However because Windows is more widely used, malware developers concentrate their efforts on attacking Windows.

Professional security researchers advise that MacOS is not inherently more secure than Windows. Therefore Mac users still need to take the same steps to protect themselves as what Windows users do. Mac users who believe, incorrectly, that they do not need anti-malware protection are at greater risk than Windows users who do use anti-malware.

Sometimes we all just need a little help

We are Timor-Leste’s leading IT security advisory service and our approach is unique. Protection of your critical business data is central to our philosophy, and at the heart of absolutely everything we do. We’ve lost count of the number of times that our dedication to security has saved our customers from serious harm.

IT security is a highly specialised area, and it requires a multi-layered approach. Getting it right is essential, and to achieve this, you need expert advice.

We offer an obligation-free business-wide IT security assessment at no cost to organisations in Timor-Leste. For more information, please email us, or call +670 331 12 80.