Ransomware, Hackers, and … Guarantees?
Nearly every data recovery firm advertises ‘ransomware recovery guarantees’ on their website. For a fee, they promise to decrypt your data or refund your money. The guarantee reassures the victim and compels them to become a customer.
But, how can a data recovery firm offer a guarantee that a consortium of IT security leaders can’t?
If public decryption tools are freely available, what should you make of these data recovery firm’s ‘guarantees’? In this post we take a closer look at the particulars of ‘ransomware recovery guarantees’ and their use as a misleading sales tactic.
The psychology of a ransomware decryption guarantee
In a study of consumer purchasing behavior around product guarantees & warranties published in the Journal of Consumer Research, authors Tao Chen and Ajay Kalra found that “although most policies go unused, the emotional tranquillity that comes with buying a warranty is not in itself without value, even if “rationally, it doesn't make sense”. The study also found that consumers are more likely to buy “potentially unnecessary and overpriced insurance”, because they are more worried about the expense of replacing a product if it breaks.
The return of encrypted data falls within these concerns, but the price charged does not. A standard product warranty cost between 10-50% of the underlying product contract value. However, this is far from the case when it comes to data recovery and ransomware.
Data recovery guarantees for ransomware are often 300-500% the actual ransom amount. These premiums conflict with our ransomware victim rights of transparency and the lowest possible cost of data recovery.
When considering using a data recovery firm, you must ask yourself: How can they make this guarantee? What is it worth to them? Since the only parties that control the decryption keys are the hackers, guaranteeing that the keys will be released implies that the data recovery firms are coordinating with the hackers. Without some degree of coordination, a guarantee would appear impossibile. The implications are deeply concerning for anyone hoping for fairness and transparency.
Herein lies the rub and a not so secret secret: Statistically speaking, when you pay for ransomware, you recover your data.
Ransomware hackers leverage guarantee language heavily in their communications
A guarantee is only as good as the reputation of the guarantor… or is it? The promise of data recovery is a powerful sell during a ransomware attack and it is not lost on the hackers and data recovery firms that attempt to extort victims. View any ransom note or TOR site and you will find the promise of a ‘guarantee’. Indeed, some data recovery firms use similar phrasing on their own literature to capitalize on this emotion. A guarantee feels like a security blanket regardless of who offers it.
Ransomware guarantees conflict with victim’s rights
Offering a guarantee and charging a premium for that guarantee conflicts with victim’s rights in two ways. First, the guarantee is a false security blanket given the statistics. Ransomware victims should know their rights and the odds of data recovery without being charged or obliged to do anything for that information.
Second, the premium charge for the guarantee drains the company’s budget for necessary IT security improvements. While data return guarantees feel nice, they are actually a mechanism that keeps true information about ransomware opaque and taxes businesses unfairly at a moment of vulnerability. In other words, guarantees in ransomware are misleading at best.
Data transparency, on the other hand, is free and aligns the victimized company, service provider and the security ecosystem. It ensures the relevant facts and circumstances are shared and that data driven decisions are made. It incentivizes service providers to charge for their services and not become misaligned with the size and outcome of a ransomware attack. Most importantly, it preserves budget for the victim company.
Investment in IT security and disaster recovery systems and hardware should not be sacrificed for a short term guarantee.