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The Ransomware Ecosystem: In Pursuit of Fame and Fortune

Tenable's The Ransomware Ecosystem Report
The Ransomware Ecosystem: In Pursuit of Fame and Fortune

The key players within the ransomware ecosystem, including affiliates and initial access brokers, work together cohesively like a band of musicians, playing their respective parts as they strive for fame and fortune.

Background

In our recently released report, The Ransomware Ecosystem, we dive into various elements of this self-sustaining industry, including the key players and tactics used that have turned ransomware into one of the greatest threats to organizations globally today.

In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said they were tracking over 100 active ransomware groups. These groups work closely together with a variety of threat actors. Separately, they are disparate musicians that march to the beat of their own drum. However, when these key players come together, including the ransomware groups themselves as well as affiliates and initial access brokers (IABs), they look more like a successful band of musicians, which is ultimately the foundation for sustaining the ransomware ecosystem.

Ransomware groups: The lead singers

When you look at any band throughout history, the lead singers are by far the most noticeable and garner the most attention. They sing, often write lyrics and sometimes play an instrument or two. In the ransomware ecosystem, the ransomware groups unquestionably serve as the lead singers. They get the most notoriety from the role they play because they are the creators of the product (the ransomware) and are responsible for maintaining it. Name recognition and prior attacks are key to recruiting other band mates (affiliates and partners.) Ransomware group names and logos are prominently displayed in the ransom notes found on systems encrypted within a victim’s network and on the leak websites that host victims’ stolen files. There is no ransomware ecosystem without ransomware groups.

Affiliates and Initial access brokers: The ideal bandmates

While other members of a band may not always gain the same notoriety of the lead singers, they are more often than not the backbone of the group. Affiliates are like the guitarists and drummers. Their contributions help to create the structure and melody behind songs. In the ransomware ecosystem, they are the ones responsible for identifying potential victims and breaching target systems through a variety of means. Meanwhile, IABs are less like formal members of a band and more like independent session musicians who are hired to participate in studio recordings or live shows. They play their part and they play it well. In the ransomware ecosystem, IABs, as their name implies, do one thing and do it well: they gain and maintain initial access to organizations and sell this access to others, including ransomware affiliates. Sometimes an IAB will play a more prominent part. For example, an IAB outfit known as EXOTIC LILY worked directly with the Conti ransomware group, which allowed Conti to skip working with an affiliate. In a case like this one, the IAB becomes more of a permanent member of the band so to speak.

Both affiliates and IABs forgo the fame in favor of the fortune, while it’s clear the ransomware groups covet both.

In the ransomware ecosystem, the show must go on

For ransomware groups, the pursuit of fame and fortune comes at a price. The increased attention includes scrutiny by law enforcement and government agencies around the world. This unwanted attention can prompt ransomware groups to disband or lead to the arrest of the individuals involved. Despite the disappearance of ransomware groups, the affiliates and IABs often remain firmly in place. It’s akin to a band that loses its lead singer but finds a replacement and keeps going with no other changes to its member lineup. For example, when the BlackMatter ransomware group shut down its operations, its affiliates shifted their victims over to the LockBit ransomware group. After all, the show must go on.

For the ransomware ecosystem to thrive, it requires the participation and collaboration of all of the players involved: a collective effort. While the individual parts could pursue solo ventures, their reach and earning power would be limited. Together, they’ve become an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.

To learn more about the key players within the ecosystem and the tactics that have fueled ransomware’s impressive success, please check out our report on The Ransomware Ecosystem.

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