UCD assistant professor Dr Nima Afraz explores how blockchain technology could be used against cyberattacks as well as the potential danger it poses.
In light of the recent ransomware attack on Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE), I have examined the possible role blockchain technology can play in exacerbating but also preventing such attacks.
The race is now on between those who want to use blockchain for good and those who seek to use it to create further criminal harm.
Ransomware is an increasingly common type of cyberattack during which the victim’s computer is infiltrated and their data rendered inaccessible by encryption techniques. The victim is then forced to pay a ransom to gain access to their own data.
A ransomware attack consists of several steps:
1. Infection/breach: Hackers use an attack vector to deliver the infected software or the ‘payload’ to the victim’s device.
2. The malware spreads: The malware spreads within the victim’s network and quickly encrypts their files.
3. Negotiations begin: The attacker shows an alert on the victim’s screen or opens a communication channel with them and promises to unlock the encrypted data when the ransom is paid.
Ransomware supply chain
The more advanced these attacks become, the more specialisation each step requires. For instance, an advanced cryptographist capable of designing the most sophisticated multi-threaded encryption technique is not necessarily a skilled extortion-negotiator or an adept social engineer.
At the same time, a cybercrime gang will risk more danger by recruiting more people. Hence, a new concept has emerged to connect these cybercriminals without exposing them to more danger. The recent phenomenon is called ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS).
RaaS platforms are often equipped with a step-by-step process allowing the client (in this case, the attacker) to customise many aspects of the malicious software, including the attack vector, encryption method, the type of files targeted (images, PDF, or a specific file format), communication channel and messages.
Cybercriminals’ struggle for trust
Unsurprisingly cybercriminals do not trust each other. The marketplaces on the dark web where such RaaS offerings are sold are full of reviews from opportunist novice criminals who heard about RaaS and thought they could get rich overnight, only to be scammed by other con artists.
Similarly, the victims also have good reasons not to trust the attackers, besides them being criminals. For one, according to Kaspersky, only a quarter of ransomware victims manage to fully recover their data after paying the ransom. This is simply because the attackers do not invest substantial time and money in developing the decryption tool.
Meanwhile, very often, even after receiving the ransom and exchanging the decryption keys, the greedy attackers threaten to leak the sensitive data acquired during the attack and continue blackmailing the victim.
Therefore, there is no guarantee that after paying the ransom, the victim will get all their data back.
This issue seldom goes out of the area of individual trust and becomes a public cry for legitimacy. The collective of dark web hackers has long enjoyed the Robin Hood status due to targeting big corporations and donating to charities or leaking classified data on the government and public figure corruption.
Like drug cartels’ popularity stunts during the pandemic, cybercriminals benefit from the ‘coolness factor’ to recruit more hackers and maintain a reputation in public opinion.
However, preventing a country’s cancer patients from accessing chemotherapy and articles such as this is not consistent with the Robin Hood stature they yearn for. This might be why the cybercriminals behind the recent ransomware attack against HSE suddenly decided to publish the decryption tool online and for free.
Where does the blockchain come in?
Although the earliest documented ransomware attack dates back to 1989, the emergence of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has resulted in a massive resurgence in ransomware attacks. This is mainly because these cryptocurrencies allow attackers to extort large sums of money while remaining anonymous and difficult to trace.
The bad news is blockchain technology might prove to be the missing link in the full automation of ransomware attacks. Cybercriminals have already made efforts in automating the process of customising and selling ransomware. However, the lack of trust between cybercriminals is still a barrier to the full automation of this process.
A smart contract-based RaaS supply chain could cultivate more worrying degrees of operation. For instance, the cybercriminals could agree on a smart contract where a ransomware developer would only get a commission fee and only if the ransomware is proven effective. Once an agreement is written in a smart contract format, it’s immutable and unstoppable by either party.
From human-operated to automated attacks
On the other hand, blockchain could be used by the attackers to gain the victim’s trust. Researchers have studied how blockchain-based semi-autonomous ransomware could take the scale of ransomware attacks to an entirely new level. Researchers are now studying new ransom payment paradigms enabled by blockchain technology, including the pay-per-decrypt method.
Pay-per-decrypt is designed to gain the victim’s trust by allowing them to pay separate ransom for each, or a subset of, encrypted files. This will remedy the lack of trust between a victim who, rather than a large lump sum payment with uncertainty, will pay small amounts in return for guaranteed decryption. Another advantage of pay-per-decrypt for the attacker is the additional payment options they can program into the smart contracts, such as dynamic pricing of the files.
It is not all bad news
Blockchain technology can also work as a preventative measure to disarm ransomware.
In many cases, the main problem for victims is that only one copy of their data was ever stored on the servers. If attackers target this single point of failure, it’s enough to cost a victim access to their data.
Suppose the victim was instead keeping distributed records of their data spread across multiple servers hosted by independent providers instead of a single centralised copy. In that case, they could have isolated the infected machine and recovered all the data from the other copies.
Blockchain is one of the main technologies that allow such a distributed record-keeping with multiple immutable copies of the data available on demand without relying on a central entity and, therefore, no single point of failure.
On top of that, other distributed file storage protocols such as InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) could be used in parallel to blockchain to store larger datasets.
In addition, our work on collaborative attack prevention also uses blockchain technology to incentivise network entities to share attack information with each other and potentially leading to better defence against ransomware.
By Dr Nima Afraz
Dr Nima Afraz is an assistant professor at University College Dublin and is associated with the Connect SFI research centre in Trinity College Dublin.