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What Is Double Extortion Ransomware?

What is a double extortion ransomware attack?

A double extortion ransomware attack is a cyberattack in which threat actors exfiltrate a victim’s sensitive data in addition to encrypting it. This gives the criminal additional leverage to collect ransom payments.

In a double extortion attack, a ransomware operator gains access to a victim’s network using any of a variety of established methods and threat vectors, such as phishing, malware, vulnerability exploits, brute-forcing an RDP server, or stolen credentials. The operator then performs network discovery to locate and secure access to all high-value assets from across the network and connected endpoints, and then exfiltrate them to the operator's own storage network. After spreading laterally throughout the network, the threat actor encrypts the data and demands a ransom. If the ransom is not paid, the criminals will often sell the stolen data or publish it in public blogs and online forums.

Attack sequence of double extortion ransomware

a diagram showing ransomware attack

The evolving threat of double extortion ransomware

Cybercrime continues to evolve, as do cybersecurity techniques designed to defend against it and minimize its impact. Ransomware has been around in some form for decades, beginning with the 1989 AIDS trojan, or PC Cyborg virus. Distributed via floppy disks, the AIDS trojan directed its victims to mail $189 to a post office box in Panama to regain access to their systems.

More than thirty years later, the advent of cryptocurrencies has made tracking of payments more difficult for law enforcement, but cybersecurity teams have improved their backup and security policies to aid in decryption. In 2019, a criminal organization called TA2102 used the Maze ransomware to perpetrate the first high-profile double extortion ransomware attack when they infiltrated security staffing company Allied Universal. Instead of simply encrypting the firm’s data, Maze exfiltrated it and threatened to publish the stolen information online unless Allied paid a ransom of US$2.3 million in bitcoin. This meant that even if Allied had been able to restore their network and data, they would still suffer a severe data breach unless they paid up.

Since then, double extortion ransomware incidents have become more popular and complex. In 2020 alone, at least 15 ransomware families using the technique had perpetrated 1,200 incidents, resulting in many high-visibility data leaks. Ransomware attacks have become larger and more frequent. Affiliate networks now can purchase ransomware variants via “ransomware as a service” over the dark web, as well as use high-impact techniques such as exploiting vulnerabilities in the software supply chain to maximize their returns.

Recent high-profile examples

One of the highest profile cases of double extortion arrived in May 2021 with the attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which at the time carried 45% of the supply of gasoline and jet fuel for the US East Coast. Attackers from the ransomware family DarkSide stole 100 GB of data, forcing the Colonial Pipeline company to pay an estimated $5 million in bitcoin to regain control and restore services. Around the same time, attackers from the Russian-based Conti ransomware gang hit Ireland’s Health Service Executive system and demanded a $20 million ransom for the return of patient data. Later that same month, JBS S.A., the world’s largest meat producer, was forced to temporarily shut down operations when ransomware group REvil infiltrated its network, exfiltrated its data, and held it hostage for an $11 million ransom in bitcoin.

Top double-extortion ransomware families

Since late 2019, the following ransomware families have been the most active in executing double-extortion ransomware attacks. Several of these groups have disbanded and changed their names following high-profile attacks:

  • DarkSide
  • Egregor
  • Conti
  • DoppelPaymer / BitPaymer
  • REvil / Sodinokibi
  • Avaddon
  • Ragnar Locker
  • Maze

Protect yourself from double extortion ransomware attacks

Double extortion ransomware attacks are insidious and costly. Attacks have increased dramatically in part because companies have been willing to give in to ransom demands as criminals have gotten more persistent and aggressive. However, there are still steps you can take to protect your company and its information.

Adopt a zero trust security policy

A key defense against a cybercriminal accessing your network, especially in light of the steady increase of processing in the cloud, is to adopt a policy of zero trust, or least-privileged access. Zero trust means that no user or application should be inherently trusted. Rather, everything is assumed to be hostile until it has been authenticated and authorized. Access is granted based on user identity and context, and even then, only to a minimal set of resources.

A zero trust architecture for ransomware defense relies on three principles:

  1. Minimize the attack surface: Make users and applications invisible to the internet by securing access behind a proxy-based brokered exchange. If applications can’t be discovered, there’s no attack surface to exploit.
  2. Eliminate lateral movement: Hackers can only encrypt or steal data they can see. Microsegmentation techniques reduce data exposure and therefore minimize damage. In an ideal zero trust deployment, organizations use a proxy-based architecture to connect authenticated users directly to applications without ever exposing the network. Organizations may also deploy deception technologies to lure and expose attackers.

  3. Fully inspect for effective threat and data loss prevention: Inspect all traffic, both encrypted and unencrypted, entering and leaving your organization. This eliminates blind spots and maximizes your chances of keeping attackers out and sensitive data in.

More best practices to safeguard your network

In addition to adopting a zero trust philosophy, cybersecurity teams should implement these policies to further reduce your attack surface and mitigate the ransomware threat:

  • Enforce a consistent security policy to prevent initial compromise. With a distributed workforce, it's important to implement a secure access service edge (SASE) architecture that provides authentication and enforces consistent security policy no matter where users are working.
  • Deploy inline data loss prevention. Prevent exfiltration of sensitive information with trust-based data loss prevention tools and policies to thwart double extortion techniques.
  • Keep software and training up to date. Apply software security patches and conduct regular security awareness employee training to reduce vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cybercriminals.
  • Have a response plan. Prepare for the worst with cyber insurance, a data backup plan, and a response plan as part of your overall business continuity and disaster recovery program.

Zscaler Zero Trust Exchange

Zscaler has the industry’s most comprehensive ransomware protection for your network and cloud, with protections across the ransomware attack sequence, including initial compromise, lateral movement, and data exfiltration. Zscaler monitors 200 billion transactions per day during peak periods across its global platform, blocking threats and sharing threat intelligence with customers around the world to facilitate zero trust security. We partner with leading security providers to ensure you have coordinated visibility and response capabilities across your entire security ecosystem.

To learn more, visit our Ransomware Protection page.

For a more in-depth look at double extortion ransomware trends and the tactics of top threat actors, read our ThreatLabz Ransomware Review: The Advent of Double Extortion.