The FBI isn't wrong; sometimes you will have to pay the ransom

It might make you feel dirty, but paying could be the best bet in some situations

fbi seal
Credit: Dave Newman

Last week, during the 2015 Cyber Security Summit in Boston, Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said that the FBI's advice for some Ransomware attacks is to pay the ransom. Immediately, some security professionals took offense at his remarks, but the bigger picture is that payment might be the only option.

Let's look at things in context. The debate over this topic starts with a story written by the Security Ledger.

Bonavolonta, who is the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s CYBER and Counterintelligence Program at the Boston field office, made his comments while discussing Ransomware, particularly CryptoWall.

While commenting on how advanced the malware is, such as the fact that it used strong encryption (2048-bit RSA) and can rapidly infect an entire system or network share, Bonavolonta said that when the "ransomware is that good" the FBI will "often advise people just to pay the ransom."

"The easiest thing may be to just pay the ransom," he continued, adding that most organizations do, which is evident by the enormous amount of money made by the scheme.

While the FBI would love to wave a magic wand and reverse a CryptoWall infection, the reality is that Ransomware isn't something that can be easily defeated once it's infected a system.

Another point he stressed, was that most criminals running CryptoWall attacks are good to their word and release the files once paid.

The reason for this though is that most of the attacks are automated, so the payment and recovery are all part of the same campaign. Rarely, if ever, will you deal with the attackers themselves when recovering from a Ransomware attack.

So is paying the ransom bad advice? No, it isn't.

In fact, the advice to pay the ransom is actually a case-by-case determination as far as the FBI is concerned.

The official policy of the FBI is to not make recommendations, but to offer options. One of those options is to pay the ransom, and the reason this happens is because the infected organization has no other way to recover the files.

Earlier this year, in July, it was revealed that the Village of Ilion in central New York made ransom payments of $300 and $500 in 2014 after the comptroller's office was infected with Ransomware. The systems were essential to payroll and accounting, but because there were no solid backups, and no other recovery options available – payment was the only choice left.

In Maine, the Lincoln County sheriff's office also paid the ransom. Once more, the encrypted files were critical, but backups or other means of recovery were not available - payment was the only option. The same situation happened at the Tewksbury Police Department in Massachusetts.

Since 2013, when Ransomware started to gain serious traction as an actual threat – countless organizations have had no other option but to pay ransom.

No two Ransomware infections will be the same, so the decision to pay might not be the best solution – and if so, then the organization shouldn't pay. However, while it might make some feel dirty – if the only other option on the table is payment, then payment will be made.

If the organization has to pay ransom to get their files back, it can only blame itself for being placed in that situation to begin with. In each reported case of a ransom being paid, the issue wasn't the infection – it was a lack of recovery options.

So the FBI wasn't wrong exactly, but the issue isn't cut and dry.

Ransomware is a case-by-case, value assessment situation. How valuable are the lost files? If you can stand losing them, don't pay. Otherwise, get ready to record a loss on the books and invest in recovery options.

In addition to recovery options, meaning backups of critical systems that are taken daily and tested regularly (or system restore options), other layered defenses that will help prevent Ransomware attacks include anti-Virus, ad blockers, and awareness training. For corporate environments, a tuned firewall is a major asset as well.

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