Ransomware is a form of malicious software (malware) designed to deny access to a computer system or data until a ransom is paid. It has emerged as a significant cyber threat in recent years.

Typically, ransomware is installed when a user clicks on a malicious link, opens a suspicious email attachment, or through an unpatched security vulnerability. Once installed, the ransomware encrypts critical files and folders on the system using cryptography.

A ransom message will appear demanding payment, often in a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, in order for the hackers to send the decryption key to unlock the files. The ransom note threatens permanent data loss if the ransom is not paid within a designated timeframe.

Some of the most prolific ransomware variants include Ryuk, Conti, REvil and Phobos. Attackers ranging from criminal enterprises to nation-states have deployed ransomware for profit and political ends. Systems infected with ransomware are frequently business networks and critical infrastructure.

The overall damage caused by ransomware extends beyond the ransom payment itself. Downtime, lost productivity, disruption to operations, and costs of recovering and strengthening defenses also factor in. In 2020, the average ransomware payment was over $300,000.

Defending against ransomware requires a multi-layered approach. Key prevention best practices include training staff on threat awareness, keeping software regularly updated, securing backups offline, limiting user permissions, and monitoring networks for threats.

While paying the ransom may seem the easiest way to restore access, it further incentivizes cybercriminals. Seeking help from law enforcement and IT security firms to regain access without paying is generally advised instead.

Ransomware remains a constantly evolving threat. Attackers’ tactics, systems targeted, and ransom demands continue to advance. Staying vigilant and proactively strengthening defenses remains crucial for businesses and organizations. Understanding the ransomware threat landscape is vital for security teams.