Digging into motives
It is conventional wisdom in information security that precise attribution for successful digital attacks is very difficult difficult. Concealing the source of malware is much easier than say the launch point of an ICBM, and sophisticated attackers can engage in false-flag operations to frame innocent bystanders for their actions. So it is unusual that persuasive evidence has already emerged linking the ransomware Wannacry to DPRK. (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea for short— whenever the words “democratic” and “people” appear in the name of a country, you can be certain it is neither.) Even the NSA and British NCSC confirmed as much in off-the-record statements. That degree of confidence in the conclusion is itself surprising: nation-state sponsored threat actors are expected to be among the most sophisticated of all threat actors, and therefore more likely to exercise good operational security in hiding their tracks and avoiding mistakes that point back at the responsible party.
But assuming the attribution in this case is correct, it raises two questions:
- Are nation states now carrying out financially motivated attacks?
- Why was Wannacry so spectacularly unsuccessful at extracting payment from its targets?
Intelligence gathering vs get-rich-quick schemes
Managing information security risks calls for an understanding of the threat actors one is likely to run up against. Motivations and capabilities of the average script-kiddie are vastly different than those of an intelligence agency, as are the appropriate defensive measures necessary to defend against them. In particular, one needs a credible motive for attack.
A good chunk of online crime is financially motivated. Large-scale breaches against payment systems, such as TJ Maxx (2006), Target (2013) or Home Depot (2014) were driven by good old-fashioned greed. The perpetrators hoped to monetize stolen payment instruments, either by using them directly to conduct fraudulent purchases, or offload the card details to other enterprising criminals who were better placed to do that. (It is not trivial to do this effectively: the crooks must find a way to purchase goods that can be resold while minimizing the risk of getting caught or triggering the fraud-detection systems operated by card networks. While data on this point is scarce, only a small fraction of the spending limit available on a card can be exploited by the attacker before it is suspended.) That end goal in turn influences choice of target based on a calculus of expected gain: probability of successfully breaching the target multiplied by amount of funds at stake. This provides the greatest flexibility in simultaneously going after multiple targets in the hopes that one will pan out; no reason to insist on trying to break into company X if it turns out company Y will be an easier target with just as much value at risk.
But financial gain is far from being the only driver. Some threat actors are motivated by ideology. Unlike crooks chasing money, “hacktivists” seek to achieve political objectives or settle scores against companies perceived as causing harm. Phineas Phisher’s exquisite 0wnage and subsequent doxing of the ethically bankrupt Hacking Team is a textbook example. These groups have a highly principled approach to picking their targets, paying less attention to the difficulty and devoting significant resources on a specific objective. Yet others are characterized by a complete lack of ideology; they are in it for the “lulz.” Targets are chosen arbitrarily and opportunistically, with no rhyme or reason other than being within range of attacker capabilities, the online equivalent of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the other extreme, nation-state actors are the apex predators of the ecosystem. They combine massive arsenals of offensive tool-kits with a disciplined approach to selecting targets based on intelligence value. Here “nation-state” encompasses both offensive actions directly carried out by intelligence agencies, but also private groups funded/supported by such organizations to carry out proxy battles. No target is too small or too insigificant if there is valuable information to loot: China is equally at home going after boutique law firms defending political dissidents as going after the whole enchilada at Google.
Until now it was assumed that such groups were not after direct financial gain. There certainly is a time-honored tradition of industrial espionage carried out against foreign countries in pursuit of indirect financial gain for the home team. Yet one does not expect the NSA, GCHQ or even their less ethically-constrained brethren such as FSB to operate credit-card skimming operations on the side.
From industrial espionage to the Bangladeshi job
North Korea is now challenging that premise. The original link between Wannacry and DRPK was the similarity in its code to previously known malware used in the attack on the central bank of Bangladesh. That heist netted the perpetrators over $80 million USD even after attempted recovery of stolen funds—and it would have been a lot more profitable, to the tune $900M were it not for careless mistakes made by the attackers that blew the cover on the operation. These are significant numbers, especially for an embattled North Korea straining under the weight of economic sanctions.
This action had an undeniable profit motive; in fact such brazen theft of funds compromises any intelligence gathering mission that may have been going on in parallel. Lazarus Group had achieved persistence on systems belonging to the Bank of Bangladesh and lurked for months while building custom techniques to evade monitoring. Such entrenched presence would have supplied DPRK with a unique vantage point to spy on the movement of funds in Bangladesh for years to come—if they cared for that capability. By contrast a smash-and-grab attack that results in significant loss can not stay under the radar and predictably leads to defenders diligently working to flush out any attacker presence from the system.
Wannacry as the amateur-hour of ransomware
That brings us to the strange case of Wannacry. On paper, ransomware is the epitome of financially motivated malware with zero information-gathering value, reflecting an interesting shift in tactics. The first generation of mass malware turned Windows PCs into zombies sending out spam while completely ignoring any data that may reside on those machines; effectively only monetizing their network bandwidth to support ancillary business models such as mass marketing or distributed-denial-of-service. The second generation focused on information theft as traditionally understood, looking for special categories of data that can be monetized directly such as passwords for online banking sites or credit-card details, and shipping these off to a server controlled by the attackers. Ransomware by contrast does not attempt to steal any information; it holds information hostage from the legitimate owner via encryption.
That modus operandi means ransomware has the unusual feature of having to negotiate with its victims for successful monetization. A spam bot operates quietly in the background; it does not show users a dialog offering to uninstall itself in exchange for payment. Likewise banking malware silently collects credentials for logging into financial institutions and ships these off to its operators who already have existing plans to monetize that information by selling the credentials on dark markets. That path is already preordained. Consumers do not get a first right of refusal to opt out of that transaction and keep their PayPal password secret by offering more money than prevailing underground rates. Ransomware is unique in expecting to get compensated directly by its own victims.
That in turn brings some semblance of market dynamics into the equation. While installing ransomware is not a voluntary act (unless you are a security researcher) the user still has a decision to make about paying the ransom bid. For example if they had been regularly backing up all of their files, they could always choose to wipe their machine clean, reinstall the operating system to get back to a clean slate and recover using those backups. Even if the user is faced with partial loss of data, they may still deem the ransom price too high to warrant rescuing the lost information. This is where the reliability of ransomware operation enters into the picture, because malware is effectively a market for lemons. There is no honor among thieves. Even if the price is “reasonable” there is no guarantee that successful decryption will follow after delivering the payment. (At least in the current incarnation of ransomware observed in the wild. In principle, smart-contracts enable honest ransomware with delivery of payment contingent on the disclosure of decryption keys.) A user who does not get their files decrypted despite paying up is an unhappy customer. In this day and age of Yelp reviews, word gets around: other users facing the same decision may opt for not paying.
This is where Wannacry fails spectacularly: it is clear from reverse-engineering the binary that this operation could not possibly have supported any type of decryption based on payment. To the extent users have been able to recover their data, it has been due to fortunate design flaws in Wannacry or at least a failure by the authors to understand quirks of Windows crypto API which keeps decryption keys around longer than expected. In fact it is clear the Lazarus Group did not plan on providing a decryption service. Users were asked to send payment to exactly one of 3 Bitcoin addresses randomly selected from a list hard-coded into the binary. Given that infected systems numbered in the hundreds of thousands, it is not possible to identify which ones have paid— a prerequisite for honoring the promise that paying users receive a decryption key. The only plausible scenario would have been a global ransom: offering to release a master key that would unlock all machines once a specified amount is sent in total from all affected users. But such a collectivized demand is far less likely to find any takers compared to individual offers. There is still no guarantee of recovering your files and now your success depends on other people cooperating. If the threshold is not reached, all donations are wasted. Meanwhile everyone has an incentive for free-riding, hoping that other people will chip in and they can collect the benefit when decryption key is released.
To wit those three Bitcoin addresses have collected a modest sum of 55BTC at the time of writing, worth approximately $125K at current exchange rates. That figure is dwarfed by the take from the Bangladesh heist. That raises a significant question: if Wannacry was developed by a highly skilled threat actor with nation-state backing and yet, for all that talent, proved an abject failure at monetization, were there other motives behind it?
Unfollowing the money
We can not rule out the theory that Wannacry was a precursor of the finished product North Korea wanted to unleash, an incomplete beta version which accidentally escaped the lab setting and propagated. According to this view, the final version would have handed out individual Bitcoin addresses to every user and featured some type of service in the cloud to hand out decryption keys when payment is made. (Although it is difficult to imagine how that would work, given the enormous incentive by ISPs and law-enforcement to shutdown such a service.) Yet for unclear reasons—either by accident or perhaps to meet some arbitrary deadline— this half-baked version was unleashed and since it is self-propagating malware, could no longer be recalled.
An alternative explanation is that the whole ransomware aspect is a diversion. The true purpose of Wannacry is inflicting economic harm by destroying data and rendering systems unusable. That there is no mechanism for recovering data after payment is not a “bug” in the operation; it is 100% by design. Unlike a true extortion scheme, these perpetrators have no plans to profit from providing any relief from the harms unleashed by their own creation. The objective is imposing costs on , not obtaining additional revenue for themselves. The negligible amount of Bitcoin collected is only a side-show. Even if a few people did pay up initially, future victims would be discouraged after learning that the promised data recovery never arrive. If this theory is correct, the operational cover for Wannacry became a victim of its own success: instead of blending into the background as yet another ransomware scam, Wannacry was extensively studied and reverse-engineered, eventually unearthing the link to North Korea. The main strike against this theory is the geographic distribution of Wannacry infections: Russia, India, several former Soviet republics, China and Iran are among the top 20 countries affected. While North Korea is greatly isolated and has few allies, these are not exactly the countries that one would expect DPRK to prioritize targeting—Iran in particular has been implicated in supplying DPRK with technology for its nuclear program. While some of this may be driven by the prevalence of outdated/pirated versions of Windows not receiving security updates, it would have been trivial to design safeguards that take place after infection to selectively target specific regions. For example Wannacry could have checked timezone and language settings on the machine before proceeding to encrypt files. (Malware in the wild carrying such checks has surfaced at least as early as 2009.) On the other hand carving out such exceptions provides circumstantial evidence about the source of the attack. If malware has been tailored to avoid particular countries, the assumption is its creators are affiliated with or at least closely allied with the nations spared from damage. Taking an equal-opportunity approach to harming friend and foe, Wannacry may have been trying to avoid giving such geopolitical clues.