On January 11, antivirus company Bitdefender said it was “happy to announce” a startling breakthrough. It had found a flaw in the ransomware that a gang known as DarkSide was using to freeze computer networks of dozens of businesses in the US and Europe. Companies facing demands from DarkSide could download a free tool from Bitdefender and avoid paying millions of dollars in ransom to the hackers.
But Bitdefender wasn’t the first to identify this flaw. Two other researchers, Fabian Wosar and Michael Gillespie, had noticed it the month before and had begun discreetly looking for victims to help. By publicizing its tool, Bitdefender alerted DarkSide to the lapse, which involved reusing the same digital keys to lock and unlock multiple victims. The next day, DarkSide declared that it had repaired the problem, and that “new companies have nothing to hope for.”
“Special thanks to BitDefender for helping fix our issues,” DarkSide said. “This will make us even better.”
DarkSide soon proved it wasn’t bluffing, unleashing a string of attacks. This month, it paralyzed the Colonial Pipeline Co., prompting a shutdown of the 5,500-mile pipeline that carries 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast—quickly followed by a rise in gasoline prices, panic buying of gas across the Southeast, and closures of thousands of gas stations. Absent Bitdefender’s announcement, it’s possible that the crisis might have been contained, and that Colonial might have quietly restored its system with Wosar and Gillespie’s decryption tool.
Instead, Colonial paid DarkSide $4.4 million in Bitcoin for a key to unlock its files. “I will admit that I wasn’t comfortable seeing money go out the door to people like this,” CEO Joseph Blount told the Wall Street Journal.
The missed opportunity was part of a broader pattern of botched or half-hearted responses to the growing menace of ransomware, which during the pandemic has disabled businesses, schools, hospitals, and government agencies across the country. The incident also shows how antivirus companies eager to make a name for themselves sometimes violate one of the cardinal rules of the cat-and-mouse game of cyberwarfare: Don’t let your opponents know what you’ve figured out. During World War II, when the British secret service learned from decrypted communications that the Gestapo was planning to abduct and murder a valuable double agent, Johnny Jebsen, his handler wasn’t allowed to warn him for fear of cluing in the enemy that its cipher had been cracked. Today, ransomware hunters like Wosar and Gillespie try to prolong the attackers’ ignorance, even at the cost of contacting fewer victims. Sooner or later, as payments drop off, the cybercriminals realize that something has gone wrong.
Whether to tout a decryption tool is a “calculated decision,” said Rob McLeod, senior director of the threat response unit for cybersecurity firm eSentire. From the marketing perspective, “You are singing that song from the rooftops about how you have come up with a security solution that will decrypt a victim’s data. And then the security researcher angle says, ‘Don’t disclose any information here. Keep the ransomware bugs that we’ve found that allow us to decode the data secret, so as not to notify the threat actors.’”
Wosar said that publicly releasing tools, as Bitdefender did, has become riskier as ransoms have soared and the gangs have grown wealthier and more technically adept. In the early days of ransomware, when hackers froze home computers for a few hundred dollars, they often couldn’t determine how their code was broken unless the flaw was specifically pointed out to them.
Today, the creators of ransomware “have access to reverse engineers and penetration testers who are very very capable,” he said. “That’s how they gain entrance to these oftentimes highly secured networks in the first place. They download the decryptor, they disassemble it, they reverse-engineer it, and they figure out exactly why we were able to decrypt their files. And 24 hours later, the whole thing is fixed. Bitdefender should have known better.”