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The gaming industry is experiencing a surge in cyber attacks because of its vast reservoirs of sensitive customer information, financial transactions, and interconnected operations. Zscaler’s ThreatLabz threat research team reported earlier this year that ransomware attacks had grown 37% overall year-over-year, with the average cost of an attack reaching a whopping $5.3M. The Department of Homeland Security recently released a report stating that ransomware groups are on pace for their second most profitable year ever, driven largely by ‘big game hunting’ attacks against large organizations.
In light of the recent ransomware attacks and the growing trend of attacks against the gaming industries, we want to offer a broader analysis of ransomware attacks and trends affecting the gaming industry and give practitioners an informed perspective for how they can safeguard customer trust and data..
- The gaming industry is a treasure trove of customer data and transaction details. The nature of the gaming industry requires companies to handle high volumes of customer data and transaction details.
- Social engineering tactics played a prominent role in the most recent gaming cyberattacks. Recent cyberattacks continue to exploit social engineering techniques, but with a notable shift toward phone-based communication instead of email. This approach has proven effective due to lack of awareness and training when compared to email-based spam attacks, which are more familiar and often require education by organizations.
- International law enforcement agencies shut down two of the largest initial access brokers, Emotet and Qakbot, that should potentially reduce ransomware activity worldwide in the near term. The fall of Emotet and Qakbot reduced primary infection vectors that leveraged malicious email attachments and links. However, threat actors are turning to alternative techniques to carry out attacks.
- Minimizing external attack surface, preventing initial compromise, stopping compromised users & insider threats by eliminating lateral movement, and preventing data loss are the four core zero trust tenets for ransomware prevention.
- UNC3944, an affiliate of the BlackCat ransomware threat group, is believed to be responsible for the recent cyber attacks on the gaming industry.
- Ransomware attacks all follow a similar attack sequence. Understanding this attack sequence and employing security controls and strategies leveraging zero trust architecture is the key to an effective defense.
Attack Vectors and TTPs
Ransomware attacks have long been conducted using a variety of techniques including phishing and spam email, brute force attacks, and the exploitation of vulnerabilities. The use of phishing and spam email has long been a primary infection vector for ransomware threat actors and/or initial access brokers. However, two of the largest sources of spam email, Emotet and Qakbot, were disrupted by law enforcement operations. Qakbot in particular was a major player as an initial access broker for ransomware operations including BlackBasta. In recent weeks, ThreatLabz has observed a significant decline in BlackBasta ransomware activity corresponding to the demise of Qakbot. As a result, many ransomware initial access brokers are likely to use alternative techniques and recent attacks on the gaming industry demonstrate how these attacks (at least in the short term) are likely to be carried out. Interestingly, the attacks still continue to leverage social engineering, but rely on speaking over the phone rather than through email. This tactic has been used in prior attacks and appears to be increasingly effective because there is a lack of education, in contrast to spam, which is better understood and often requires mandatory training at many organizations.
Although spam was not used in some recent attacks, the end goal is the same: to compromise a target environment, perform lateral movement to obtain access to an administrator’s account, exfiltrate sensitive information, and (optionally) deploy ransomware. ThreatLabz has observed the latter being used less frequently in attacks in so-called encryption-less extortion attacks. Many of the extortion-less attacks have been targeted at multi-billion dollar companies with the intent to reduce the impact and disruption associated with file encryption. In May 2023, the Clop ransomware group leveraged a supply-chain style attack targeting a zero-day vulnerability in the MOVEit Transfer application enabling the group to access and steal sensitive information from hundreds of organizations. That information was then leveraged to extort victims into paying a ransom.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has adopted rules that will require public companies to disclose material cybersecurity incidents in a standalone item on Form 8-K within four business days, which rules will become effective in December 2023. This change may have an impact on ransomware negotiations and possibly lead to a reduction in the number of companies that today pay ransoms to avoid public disclosure of a breach and the corresponding release of stolen information. To learn more about the SEC’s cybersecurity ruling and how it impacts public companies, visit The Impact of the SEC’s New Cybersecurity Policies.
Suspected Threat Actors
UNC3944 has taken over ransomware news headlines with multiple high-profile attacks against casinos.
A financially-motivated threat group that has been active since May 2022, UNC3944 (a.k.a. Scattered Spider, Muddled Libra, 0ktapus, and Scatter Swine). According to a Reuters report, UNC3944 is believed to be composed primarily of young adults from the United States and United Kingdom. Their early attacks were waged against telecommunications organizations using techniques such as SIM swap scams, multi-factor authentication fatigue attacks, and SMS phishing.
More recently, UNC3944 has become an affiliate group for BlackCat/ALPHV ransomware - a notorious malware family called out as one of the top 5 ransomware families in our 2023 ThreatLabz State of Ransomware Report.
BlackCat was the second most prolific ransomware group performing double extortion attacks of the past year; only LockBit was responsible for more data leaks. The BlackCat group is a sophisticated RaaS operation that has been active since November 2021 (after previously being branded as DarkSide and BlackMatter), and is known to leverage affiliates that use a variety of methods to infiltrate victim networks, including exploiting known vulnerabilities, phishing attacks, and social engineering. Once inside a network, BlackCat operators typically use a combination of tools and techniques to move laterally, escalate privileges, and exfiltrate data. The group then deploys its ransomware payload, which encrypts the victim’s files.
Hackers Leverage Multiple Trending Techniques
The UNC3944 attacks underscore three major trends that ThreatLabz has reported in our research:
Ransomware-as-a-service: Many of the most popular and damaging ransomware families of the last year are able to scale their profits and operations using a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) model. In this model, ransomware groups outsource the infiltration, lateral movement, data theft, and ultimate deployment of their ransomware payload in exchange for a commission.
Double extortion: In double extortion ransomware attacks, threat actors not only encrypt data on the victims’ systems, but also exfiltrate it and threaten to publish it if ransoms are not paid. In 2021, ThreatLabz observed 19 ransomware families that adopted double or multi-extortion approaches to their cyberattacks. This has since grown to 44 ransomware families observed. The data extortion component of the attack has become so profitable that many threat families are now waging encryption-less ransomware attacks in which they do not even bother to encrypt data, but instead focus entirely on stealing data. These encryption-less ransomware attacks have the side benefit of attracting less attention from authorities because they do not disrupt business operations, yet are still extremely effective at generating ransom payments.
Social engineering as a method of compromise: UNC3944 frequently leverages social engineering tactics in order to compromise systems. Many of their recent attacks began with phishing that enabled them to steal credentials and gain access to systems without triggering security controls.
How to Defend Against Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware attacks (and all cyberattacks, generally) all follow a similar sequence. In order to stop these attacks consistently, your security strategy should aim to disrupt as many stages of this attack chain as possible, which maximizes your chances of stopping the attack even if the threat actors should evade some of your security controls. The stages of the attack sequence are as follows:
Figure 1: Ransomware attack sequence
1. Reconnaissance: Many ransomware attacks—especially ones targeted to large organizations—are extremely well-researched. Threat actors find out all the information that they can about your company, including who works there, what infrastructure is exposed to the internet, what applications are in use, and where you likely keep your most sensitive information. A key tactic to disrupt reconnaissance is to make yourself hard to find and hard to exploit.
- Remove vulnerable, routable appliances such as VPNs and north-south firewalls, in favor of more modern options for secure access.
- Hide your key applications behind a proxy architecture so that they can’t be exploited.
- Keep software and devices up-to-date with the most recent versions and security patches.
- Identify and remediate misconfigurations and oversharing in cloud storage that may lead to discoverable data.
2. Compromise: Once a threat actor maps out their attack plan, they will need to compromise your organization. This could be through phishing, brute force, or through an exploit of a vulnerability. Putting robust inline security controls in place to deeply inspect traffic and block malicious files and behaviors is critical.
- Inspect as much traffic as possible—including encrypted traffic, as attackers utilize encrypted channels in more than 85% of attacks.
- Utilize layered AI-powered security controls, including inline sandboxing, to stop never-before-seen threats. Attackers spin up new infrastructure extremely rapidly; the average phishing page is only 13 hours old. Relying on blocklists that only get updated every 12-24 hours is not good enough.
- Only allow access to your crown jewel applications from managed devices, and ensure that your security strategy includes device posture checks to protect your sensitive data from attacks that start with credential theft.
3. Lateral movement: When the attacker is in, they’re going to escalate their privileges and perform internal reconnaissance, usually starting with the Active Directory. Ransomware attackers will then propagate their ransomware payloads across your infrastructure in order to encrypt data. Utilize zero trust strategies to minimize access and limit the blast radius of these tactics.
- Use ZTNA to maximize microsegmentation, connecting users only to one application at a time—never the network.
- Ring-fence your applications with deceptive decoys that lure and confuse attackers, and that alert your SOC that malicious activity is underway.
4. Data theft: In double extortion or encryption-less ransomware attacks, the threat actor will find valuable information and exfiltrate it to a command-and-control server or a file sharing site where they can then hold it for ransom.
- Know your data: use AI-powered data classification tools to tag sensitive data and give yourself visibility into its movement.
- Inspect your outgoing traffic—again including encrypted channels—and utilize policies to stop data from leaving sanctioned storage locations.
Ransomware Best Practices and Mitigation
Guarding against ransomware attacks requires a comprehensive approach that tackles every stage of the threat, minimizing potential harm. The Zscaler Zero Trust Exchange offers comprehensive ransomware protection across this entire attack sequence, with best-in-class security controls that are all delivered inline and at the edge. By adopting the following guidelines, you can effectively reduce the risk of falling victim to a ransomware attack.
- Prevent initial compromise: Employ consistent security policies that ensure uncompromising security starting at your source code. By implementing extensive SSL inspection capabilities, browser isolation, inline sandboxing, and policy-driven access control, you can thwart access to malicious websites, block channels of initial compromise and detect unknown threats from reaching your users.
- Stop compromised users and insider threats: Combining inline application inspection and Identity Threat Detection & Response (ITDR) with integrated deception capabilities empowers you to detect, deceive, and effectively stop potential attackers, whether they are external threats or insiders with malicious intent.
- Minimize external attack surface and eliminate lateral movement: Prevent hackers from maneuvering within your network by disconnecting applications from the internet and embracing a zero trust network access (ZTNA) architecture. Directly connecting users to applications, and applications to applications, rather than the network itself, significantly restricts the potential reach of an attack.
- Prevent data loss: Implement inline data loss prevention measures with full TLS inspection and thoroughly inspect data both while in transit and at rest, to effectively stop data theft attempts. Stay one step ahead of threat actors by regularly updating software and providing comprehensive security training.
- Perform frequent audits: Regular cybersecurity audits play a crucial role in enhancing best practices and mitigation tactics. Audits can assess compliance adherence, which is pivotal when refining a cybersecurity strategy for the gaming industry, especially as compliance & regulations change - like the SECs new ruling on cybersecurity. In addition, regular audits can help you identify knowledge gaps in your user training and employee awareness.
- Educate and train your employees regularly: Once knowledge gaps are identified, targeted and custom cybersecurity training programs can be put into place to empower and inform employees. This boosts employee awareness, and teaches them to recognize and respond to threats effectively.
By leveraging the power of the Zscaler Zero Trust Exchange and adopting these best practices, organizations can proactively protect their users, workloads, IoT/OT devices and B2B connectivity, so that valuable data is safe from the ever-evolving threat landscape of ransomware attacks.
Recent ransomware attacks on international gaming companies are picking up speed. Phone-based social engineering tactics exploit knowledge gaps with training blindspots followed by VPN based entry into the environment that is a relatively flat legacy network. Considering the high volumes of customer data and financial transactions processed each day, this industry remains a prime target.
Zscaler recommends all companies that handle sensitive or personal data adopt a proactive approach to cybersecurity countermeasures that continually verify access requests - in other words, a zero trust architecture. The reduction in ransomware attacks due to the demise of Emotet and Qakbot are promising; however, it also highlights how quickly threat actors adapt and turn to other alternatives. Ransomware attacks consistently adhere to a standardized attack sequence. Gaining insight into this attack sequence, and implementing security measures and strategies at multiple junctures is pivotal for achieving an ironclad cybersecurity defense. Zscaler's ThreatLabz team continuously monitors threat intelligence intel and shares its findings with the wider community.