Ransomware 2021: Future Trends and Predictions

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Nowadays, making predictions is difficult. Who could have predicted, this time last year, that the world would be struggling with a global pandemic, and that ransomware that capitalizes on the outbreak would be on the rise? Well, actually, we did predict this – the ransomware, not the pandemic – in BlackBerry’s threat bulletin for 2020.

Author: Tom Eacobacci, president, BlackBerry
Author: Tom Eacobacci, president, BlackBerry

In fact, several of our predictions from last year came true – from the increased threat from Netwalker ransomware, to the fact that ransomware attacks dramatically increased in frequency and severity throughout the year. So, with that in mind, let’s speculate about what the next year will bring. (Spoiler alert: it’s pretty scary.)

1. The Usual Suspects

Let’s start with some fairly basic predictions – things that are easy to predict, because we can already see them happening.

One of these predictions is that the majority of state-sponsored ransomware (which formed part of what we called advanced persistent threats, or APTs, back in more innocent times) will continue to flow from the “big four” sponsors of state-sanctioned cyberwarfare. The Big Four currently includes Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

Second, ransomware will continue to be the most common form of cyberattack. It is already, according to many analysts, becoming the “go-to method of attack” for cybercriminals, and it’s difficult to see this changing in the next 12 months as we segue into 2021.

Third, phishing will continue to be the most dangerous and effective method of ingress. Most cyberattacks already begin with spear-phishing emails, and unless users suddenly get a lot more cautious when it comes to opening suspicious emails, that’s going to continue.

2. Increased Sophistication, New Targets

The world of ransomware is never static, though. In the coming year – just like the one we’ve just got through – we are going to see phishing and ransomware attacks increase in sophistication and frequency, and most likely will be aimed at new targets.

In terms of sophistication, there are two key trends. One is artificial intelligence (AI). Research shows that 78% of data scientists agree that artificial intelligence will play the greatest role in data protection over the upcoming decade, largely because the threats we now face are in themselves AI-enhanced.

Second, one of the key findings from a Dark Basin report earlier in the year is that nation states are looking to hire third-party “vendors” for Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) attacks; this influx of funding can’t help but increase the sophistication of malware. We’re also already seeing new organizations becoming targets for ransomware. Ransomware is already crippling schools, universities and hospitals inside and outside the USA, and governmental organizations are also seeing marked increases in attacks.

3. Changing Politics

There are also signs that the institutional response to ransomware is going to change, at least in the USA, with the installation of a new President in January. The incoming Biden administration has already signaled that it will take a stance that is more hands-on than the last, and has sought to clarify whether cities should pay ransomware demands.

Specifically, it appears that ransomware operators will be pursued more doggedly than they have been to date. Jaimie Collier, cyber threat intelligence consultant, told SecurityWeek recently the United States government declared that ransom payment would be contrary to national security interests. "The Australian Signals Directorate," he added, "has also stated publicly that they will be proactive in going after financial/ healthcare criminals. It's going to be interesting to see how other governments react, and see if other intelligence agencies start to go after financial criminals more than they have in the past."

4. Increased Cost

Finally, the obvious point. With increasing sophistication, increasing frequency, and new targets, it’s not difficult to conclude that the cost of ransomware in 2021 is going to be significantly higher than in 2020.

Though we would be hesitant to put a particular number on this increase, it’s clear that the increase will be significant. A 2017 report from Cybersecurity Ventures, for instance, accurately forecast that ransomware damages would surpass $10 billion by 2019, which it has (actual damages for last year were $11.5 billion).

Things don’t look too much better for the future. Cybersecurity Ventures’ report for 2020 estimates that total cybercrime damages for next year will exceed $6 trillion, of which ransomware will cost $20 billion alone.

It’s also important to note that these figures only include the costs that are reported by businesses (and other impacted organizations). In reality, the cost of ransomware is much higher – partially because some organizations simply pay ransoms without reporting that they have done so, and partially because the cost of ransomware is not limited to just the cost of the ransom paid; it also includes the cost of lost company productivity, brand damage, and of course remediation costs, which can be significant.

Combine all these factors, and it’s clear that we are facing an unprecedented challenge in 2021. The importance, efficacy, and frequency of ransomware has been increasing every year for a decade, but as the final numbers come out for 2020 it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that the last year has been a portent of things to come.

5. Protect Yourself

As many sources are reporting, 2020 is likely to have seen the most cyberattacks of any year on record, and by a fair margin. This is largely because so many people started working from home this year, and the advent of this shift was so sudden that companies were left desperately searching for ways to mitigate attacks in the COVID-19 era.

Ransomware was no exception to this shift, and in fact ransomware operators might just turn out to be one of the only beneficiaries of 2020. With more money and support than ever, ransomware developers are entering a golden age, just at a time when the rest of us are suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic and the lockdowns.

Given that, it’s not hard to predict what is going to happen – unless we all get a lot smarter, and quick, the ransomware pandemic is going to get worse as we move into 2021.

Tom Eacobacci is the president of BlackBerry. Read more BlackBerry blogs here.