The future of Ransomware

This is kind of a funny post for me to write, since it ransomwareinvolves speculating about a very destructive type of software — and possibly offering some (very impractical) suggestions on how it might be improved in the future. It goes without saying that there are some real downsides to this kind of speculation. Nonetheless, I’m going ahead on the theory that it’s usually better to talk and think about the bad things that might happen to you — before you meet them on the street and they steal your lunch money.

On the other hand, just as there’s a part of every karate master that secretly wants to go out and beat up a bar full of people, there’s a part of every security professional that looks at our current generation of attackers and thinks: why can’t you people just be a bit more imaginative?! And wonders whether, if our attackers were just a little more creative, people would actually pay attention to securing their system before the bad stuff happens.

And ransomware is definitely a bad thing. According to the FBI it sucks up $1 billion/year in payments alone, and some unimaginably larger amount in remediation costs. This despite the fact that many ransomware packages truly suck, and individual ransomware developers get routinely pwned due to making stupid cryptographic errors. If this strategy is working so well today, the question  we should be asking ourselves is: how much worse could it get?

So that’s what I’m going to muse about now. A few (cryptographic) ways that it might.

Some of these ideas are the result of collaboration with my students Ian Miers, Gabe Kaptchuk and Christina Garman. They range from the obvious to the foolish to the whimsical, and I would be utterly amazed if any of them really do happen. So please don’t take this post too seriously. It’s all just fun.

Quick background: ransomware today

The amazing thing about ransomware is that something so simple could turn out to be such a problem. Modern ransomware consists of malware that infects your computer and then goes about doing something nasty: it encrypts every file it can get its hands on. This typically includes local files as well as network shares that can be reached from the infected machine.


Once your data has been encrypted, your options aren’t great. If you’re lucky enough to have a recent backup, you can purge the infected machine and restore. Otherwise you’re faced with a devil’s bargain: learn top live without that data, or pay the bastards.

If you choose to pay up, there are all sorts of different procedures. However most break down into the following three steps:

  1. When the ransomware encrypts your files, it generates a secret key file and stores it on your computer.
  2. You upload that file (or data string) to your attackers along with a Bitcoin payment.
  3. They process the result with their secrets and send you a decryption key.

If you’re lucky, and your attackers are still paying attention (or haven’t screwed up the crypto beyond recognition) you get back a decryption key or a tool you can use to undo the encryption on your files. The whole thing is very businesslike. Indeed, recent platforms will allegedly offer you a discount if you infect recommend it to your friends — just like Lyft!

The problem of course, is that nothing in this process guarantees that your attacker will give you that decryption key. They might be scammers. They might not have the secret anymore. They might get tracked down and arrested. Or they might get nervous and bail, taking your precious data and your payment with them. This uncertainty makes ransomware payments inherently risky — and worse, it’s the victims who mostly suffer for it.

Perhaps it would be nice if we could make that work better.

Verifiable key delivery using smart contracts

Most modern ransomware employs a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin to enable the payments that make the ransom possible. This is perhaps not the strongest argument for systems like Bitcoin — and yet it seems unlikely that Bitcoin is going away anytime soon. If we can’t solve the problem of Bitcoin, maybe it’s possible to use Bitcoin to make “more reliable” ransomware.

Recall that following a ransomware infection, there’s a possibility that you’ll pay the ransom and get nothing in return. Fundamentally there’s very little you can do about this. A conscientious ransomware developer might in theory offer a “proof of life” — that is, offer to decrypt a few files at random in order to prove their bonafides. But even if they bother with all the risk and interaction of doing this, there’s still no guarantee that they’ll bother to deliver the hostage alive.

An obvious approach to this problem is to make ransomware payments conditional. Rather than sending off your payment and hoping for the best, victims could use cryptocurrency features to ensure that ransomware operators can’t get paid unless they deliver a key. Specifically, a ransomware developer could easily perform payment via a smart contract script (in a system like Ethereum) that guarantees the following property:

This payment will be delivered to the ransomware operator if and only if the ransomware author unlocks it — by posting the ransomware decryption key to the same blockchain.

There are various ways to do this. The decryption key itself could be a pre-image k for some public value K that the ransomware generates and leaves on your system. It’s relatively easy to imagine a smart contract that allows payment if and only if the payee can post the input k such that K=SHA256(k). This could easily be written in Ethereum, and almost certainly has an analog for Bitcoin script.

The challenge here, of course, is to prove that k is actually a decryption key for your files, and that the files contain valid data. There are a handful of different ways to tackle this problem. One is to use complex zero-knowledge proof techniques (like zkSNARKs or ZKBoo) to make the necessary proofs non-interactively. But this is painful, and frankly above the level of most ransomware developers — who are still struggling with basic RSA.

An alternative approach is to use several such K challenges in combination with the “proof of life” idea. The ransomware operator would prove her bonafides by decrypting a small, randomly selected subset of files before the issuer issued payment. The operator could still “fake” the encryption — or lose the decryption key — but she would be exposed with reasonable probability before money changed hands.

“Autonomous” ransomware

Of course, the problem with “verifiable” ransomware is: what ransomware developer would bother with this nonsense?google-self-driving-car-624x326

While the ability to verify decryption might conceivably improve customer satisfaction, it’s not clear that it would really offer that much value to ransomware operators. At the same time, it would definitely add a lot of nasty complexity to their software.

Instead of pursuing ideas that offer developers no obvious upside, ransomware operators presumably will pursue developments that offer them some real benefits. And that brings us to an idea time whose time has (hopefully) not quite come yet. The idea itself is simple:

Make ransomware that doesn’t require operators.

Recall that in the final step of the ransom process, the ransomware operator must deliver a decryption key to the user. This step is the most fraught for operators, since it requires them to manage keys and respond to queries on the Internet. Wouldn’t it be better for operators if they could eliminate this step altogether?

Of course, to accomplish this seems to require a trustworthy third party — or better, a form of ransomware that can decrypt itself when the victim makes a Bitcoin payment. Of course this last idea seems fundamentally contradictory. The decryption keys would have to live on the user’s device, and the user owns that device. In that case thethe user would just hack them out and decrypt the ransomware itself.

But what if the user couldn’t hack their own machine?

This isn’t a crazy idea. In fact, it’s exactly the premise that’s envisioned by a new class of secure execution technologies, including Intel’s SGX and ARM TrustZone. These systems — which are built into the latest generation of many processors — allow users to instantiate “secure enclaves” software environments that can’t be accessed by outside parties. SGX also isolates enclaves from other enclaves, which means the secrets they hold are hard to pry out.

Hypothetically, after infecting your computer a piece of ransomware could generate and store its decryption key inside of a secure enclave. This enclave could be programmed to release the key only on presentation of a valid Bitcoin payment to a designated address.

The beauty of this approach is that no third party even needs to verify the payment. Bitcoin payments themselves consist of a publicly-verifiable transaction embedded in a series of “blocks”, each containing an expensive computational “proof of work“. In principle, an SGX enclave could verify a fragment of a blockchain all by itself — without the need to interact with third parties. If the blockchain fragment exhibited sufficient hashpower as well as a valid payment to a fixed address, the enclave would release the decryption key.*

The good news is that Intel and ARM have devoted serious resources to preventing this sort of ransomware. Intel SGX developers in particular must obtain a code signing certificate from Intel before they can make production-ready SGX enclaves — and it seems unlikely that Intel would sign up a ransomware operation. Thus a ransomware operator would likely have to (1) steal a signing key from a legitimate Intel-certified developer, or (2) find an exploitable vulnerability in another developer’s enclave.**, ***

This all seems sort of unlikely, and that appears to block most of the threat — for now. Assuming companies like Intel and Qualcomm don’t screw things up, and have a good plan for revoking enclaves (uh oh).

Of course, in the long run developers might not need Intel SGX at all. An even more speculative concern is that developments in the field of cryptographic obfuscation will provide a software-only alternative means to implement this type of ransomware. This would eliminate the need for a dependency like SGX altogether, allowing the ransomware to do its work with no hardware at all.

At present these techniques are far north of practical, keep getting broken, and might not work at all. But cryptographic researchers keep trying. I guess the lesson is that it’s not all roses if they succeed.

Ransomware Skynet

Since I’m already this far into what reads like a Peyote-fueled rant, let’s see if we can stretch the bounds of credibility just a little a bit farther. If ransomware can become partially autonomous — i.e., do part of its job without the need for human masters — what would it mean for it to become fully autonomous? In other words, what if we got rid of the rest of the human equation?


I come from the future to encrypt C:\Documents

Ransomware with the ability to enforce payments would provide a potent funding source for another type of autonomous agent: a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or (DAO). These systems are “corporations” that consist entirely of code that runs on a consensus network like Ethereum. They’re driven by rules, and are capable of both receiving and transmitting funds without (direct) instruction from human beings.

At least in theory it might be possible to develop a DAO that’s funded entirely by ransomware payments — and in turn mindlessly contracts real human beings to develop better ransomware, deploy it, and rinse repeat. It’s unlikely that such a system would be stable in the long run — humans are nasty — but it might get a good run. Who knows? Maybe this is how the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies get started.

(I hope it goes without saying that I’m mostly not being serious about this part. Even though it would be totally awesome in a horrible sort of way.)

In conclusion

This hasn’t been a terribly serious post, although it was fun to write. The truth is that as a defender, watching your attackers fiddle around is pretty much the most depressing thing ever. Sometimes you have to break the monotony a bit.

But insofar as there is a serious core to this post, it’s that ransomware currently is using only a tiny fraction of the capabilities available to it. Secure execution technologies in particular represent a giant footgun just waiting to go off if manufacturers get things only a little bit wrong.

Hopefully they won’t, no matter how entertaining it might be.


* This technique is similar to SPV verification. Of course, it would also be possible for a victim to “forge” a blockchain fragment without paying the ransom. However, the cost of this could easily be tuned to significantly exceed the cost of paying the ransom. There are also many issues I’m glossing over here like difficulty adjustments and the possibility of amortizing the forgery over many different victims. But thinking about that stuff is a drag, and this is all for fun, right?

** Of course, if malware can exploit such a vulnerability in another developer’s enclave to achieve code execution for “ransomware”, then the victim could presumably exploit the same vulnerability to make the ransomware spit out its key without a payment. So this strategy seems self-limiting — unless the ransomware developers find a bug that can be “repaired” by changing some immutable state held by the enclave. That seems like a long shot. And no, SGX does not allow you to “seal” data to the current state of the enclave’s RAM image.

*** In theory, Intel or an ARM manufacturer could also revoke the enclave’s signing certificate. However, the current SGX specification doesn’t explain how such a revocation strategy should work. I assume this will be more prominent in future specifications.

Source: A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic … @ February 27, 2017 at 05:47PM