In the world of modern manufacturing, the convergence of technology and production has opened new frontiers of efficiency and innovation. But this progress has come with a hidden cost. The very systems that enable seamless operations and interconnectivity also expose manufacturers to cybersecurity risks. 

Among these varied and ever-evolving challenges, ransomware has emerged as uniquely menacing. It's not just a threat to individual computers or isolated systems; it's a weapon that can paralyze entire organizations. 

In 2015, the global cost of ransomware was a mere $325 million. Fast forward to 2021, and that number skyrocketed to a staggering $20 billion, accounting for approximately 20% of all cybercrime. And this threat is only growing, with Cybercrime Magazine predicting it will cost victims roughly $265 billion annually by 2031.

Given this steep increase in ransomware attacks, manufacturers must act now to avoid becoming the next victim.

What Is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware designed to block your ability to work or access your data systems, effectively holding them hostage until a ransom payment is made by the victim. Once infected, your system may stop working, or vital data may become entirely inaccessible.

The attacker then contacts you, demanding payment to restore access through a decryption key. But the nightmare doesn't always stop there; in many cases, attackers continue to ask for additional payments, trapping you in an endless loop of extortion.

To date, the most costly ransomware attack is the WannaCry ransomware attack in May of 2017. A hacker group known as Shadow Brokers exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows, encrypting files of 250,000 users across 150 countries, demanding ransoms in Bitcoin worth $300 to $600 per user. The attack resulted in an estimated $4 billion in losses for Microsoft Windows-using entities.

The History of Ransomware

The first documented ransomware attack occurred in 1989 at the World Health Organization conference. The attacker used diskettes containing information on AIDs research to install the “AIDS Trojan” (also known as the “PC Cyborg Virus”) — which encrypted file names and hid directories on victims' computers — and demanded a $189 ransom sent to a Panamanian address for decryption.

Experts believe ransomware may also have started in Vegas, where novice hackers would target casino websites. During that time, the ransom amounts hovered between $20,000 and $40,000 — which casino owners would have to pay to turn their online gambling sites back on. 

Ransomware didn’t become a mainstream cybercrime until the mid-2000s. During this time, attackers began employing more advanced and resilient encryption algorithms, such as RSA encryption.

Naturally, as technology evolved, so too did ransomware attacks. The rise of cryptocurrencies — namely, Bitcoin — provided anonymous transaction methods, which only accelerated ransomware's growth by allowing attackers to target businesses, individuals, and even governments (see Colonial Pipeline) with increasing sophistication and demands.

Within a matter of mere decades, ransomware demands have escalated sharply, inflating from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands, with average payment requests now reaching a staggering $500,000.

It is crucial to examine the evolution of ransomware and its historical progression because it underscores the dynamic nature of cyber threats and the need for constant vigilance. Only through a comprehensive understanding of ransomware's history can we hope to better defend ourselves against the relentless threat of cybercriminal innovation.

Ransomware Isn’t Just a Big Company Problem

Many small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) understandably might assume that ransomware attacks are a problem exclusive to big corporations. It’s easy to think, "Surely, the large, wealthy companies are the primary targets for cybercriminals, right?"

Wrong. The stark reality is that no business is immune to ransomware's threat. Hundreds of millions of ransomware attacks happen yearly. With over 600 million in 2022 alone — that's one every 11 seconds. The sheer volume of threats ensures that SMMs will inevitably be caught up in the nets of these ransomware schemes because the attacks aren't targeted; they're sent out in vast email campaigns, just searching for a vulnerable click. 

And for smaller companies, even a single instance could be devastating. It takes an average of 24 days for a company to regain access to its data and systems. And most small companies lack the resources to withstand such a prolonged outage. This type of delay — coupled with the potential of a $500,000+ ransom payment — could deal a lethal blow to an SMM.

Beware of Phishing and Smishing: Social Engineering Tactics

When it comes to defending against ransomware, you might instinctively protect yourself from external threats. But, for ransomware, it's crucial to recognize that your own employees can unintentionally pose a significant threat to your security.

According to CISO magazine: “A joint study from Stanford University Professor Jeff Hancock and security firm Tessian revealed that 9 in 10 data breach incidents are caused by employees’ mistakes.” 

Put simply, employees are vulnerable to social engineering schemes that exploit human psychology and manipulate them into unknowingly opening up the company for attacks. Two methods, in particular, are the most common deceptive tactics used to gain entry:

  1.  Phishing: Phishing attacks are conducted via email, where bad actors impersonate legitimate organizations or contacts. They craft emails containing malicious links or attachments that, when clicked, install ransomware on the victim's system. By playing on trust and urgency, these emails can easily lure an unsuspecting victim into their trap.
  2.  Smishing: The mobile counterpart to phishing, smishing uses text messages to deceive the recipient. The message typically contains a link that, when clicked, downloads ransomware onto the mobile device. 

Both phishing and smishing manipulate the recipient's emotions or trust to achieve their malicious goals — this is what makes it such a deceptive threat. 

How SMMs Can Increase Security

As noted, SMMs need to start from within when it comes to fortifying security against ransomware and other cyber threats. Fortunately, there are actionable steps you can take to minimize the security threat employees may unwittingly pose, including: 

  • Ongoing education and reinforcement
  • Simulating attacks via mock phishing and smishing emails
  • Requiring 2-factor authentication (2FA) for all accounts
  • Requiring strong passwords
  • Advising against clicking on unsolicited links or downloading attachments 
  • Reminding employees to scrutinize sender email addresses carefully

From there, utilizing free resources can enhance your efforts. The Center for Internet Security offers free guidelines specifically crafted to assist SMMs, which provide actionable insights and methods to improve overall security posture.

Tools like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s C-Set Ransomware Writing Assessment also guide organizations through systematically evaluating their security environment and pinpointing areas of weakness and vulnerability. By completing a simple security quiz, SMMs receive a detailed snapshot of where their security efforts need enhancement.

Once equipped with this vital information, SMMs can then consult with cybersecurity experts who can develop tailored strategies to strengthen security measures. This collaborative approach ensures that the right expertise is applied to each organization's unique needs and challenges.

Don’t Become the Next Ransomware Victim

The threat of ransomware will only evolve with time. With typical ransom demands reaching $500,000 and the average delay to regain access stretching to 16 days, small and medium-sized manufacturers simply can't afford to take the matter of cybersecurity lightly.

By proactively approaching security from multiple angles — people, process, and technology — SMMs can build a more powerful defense against the ever-evolving threats that the cyber landscape presents. 

Need assistance navigating this complex landscape? CMTC is ready to help! With dedicated resources and specialized expertise, our team can assist in tailoring a security approach that meets the unique needs of your manufacturing business.

About the Author

Gregg Profozich

Gregg Profozich is a manufacturing, operations and technology executive who believes that manufacturing is the key creator of wealth in the economy and that a strong manufacturing sector is critical to our nation’s prosperity and security now, and for future generations. Across his 20-year plus career in manufacturing, operations and technology consulting, Mr. Profozich helped manufacturing companies from the Fortune 500 to the small, independents significantly improve their productivity and competitiveness.

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