Designing “honest ransomware” with Ethereum smart contracts (part I)

“But to live outside the law, you must be honest” – Bob Dylan

By all accounts Wannacry ransomware made quite the splash, bringing thousands of systems to a standstill and forcing victims to shell out Bitcoin with little hope of recovery. In fact the ransomware aspect may well have been a diversion. Attribution for such attacks is tricky but both Kaspersky Labs and Symantec research groups have linked Wannacry to the Lazarus Group, a threat actor associated with the DPRK. (WaPo recently reported that the NSA concurs.) Their previous claim to fame: massive theft of funds from the Bangladesh central bank by exploiting the SWIFT network. That heist netted somewhere in the neighborhood of $80M, but the take would have been much higher were it not for the attackers’ rookie mistakes that resulted in even larger transfers being stopped or reversed. By comparison Wannacry earned a pittance, less than $100K at the time of writing.

Worse, this malware is not even  capable of living up to its raison d’etre: decrypting files after the attackers are paid off. For starters, only a handful of Bitcoin addresses were hard-coded in the binary, as opposed to unique deposit addresses for each victim. That makes it difficult to distinguish between different victims paying the bounty, which in turn violates the cardinal rule of ransomware: only users who pay the ransom get their data back. This is not so much a principle of fairness— there is no honor among thieves— as it is one of economic competitiveness: ransomware can only scale if victims are convinced that by paying the ransom they can recover their files. This is why successful ransomware campaigns in the past went so far as to feature helpful instructions to educate users about Bitcoin and staff customer-support operations to help “customers” recovery their data. Wannacry seems to have taken little interest in living up to such lofty standards of customer service.

But this incident does raise a question: are users at the mercy of ransomware authors when it comes to recovering their data? Is there a way to guarantee that payment will result in disclosure of the decryption key? After all, the crooks are demanding payment in cryptocurrency. Even Bitcoin with its relatively modest scripting language can express complex conditions for payment. Is it possible to design a fair-exchange protocol where decryption key is released if and only if corresponding payment is made?

This scenario is admittedly contrived and unlikely to be implemented. If there is no honor among thieves, certainly there is no desire to adapt more transparent and fair payment mechanisms to protect consumers from getting ripped-off by unscrupulous ransomware operators. But one can imagine more legitimate use-cases such as backup/escrow services that assist users encrypt their data for long-term storage. To avoid a single point of failure, the encryption key would be split using a threshold secret-sharing scheme. Specifically it is shared into N shares such that any quorum of M can reconstitute the original secret. Each share is in turn encrypted to the public-key of one trustee. When the time comes to decrypt this data, the consumer asks some subset of trustees to decrypt their share. This interaction calls for a fair-exchange protocol where the consumer receives the decryption result if and only if the trustee gets paid for its assistance.

Ethereum can solve this problem using the same idea behind fair-exchange of cryptocurrency across different blockchains, with a few caveats. The smart contract sketched out in previous blog-posts is designed to send funds when a caller discloses a specific private-key. But there are is a deeper problem around knowing which private-key to look for. In theoretical cryptography this falls under the rubric of “verifiable encryption” where it is possible to prove that some ciphertext is the encryption of an unspecified plaintext value that meets certain properties. Typically these constructs operate on abstract mathematical properties of plaintext, such as proving that it is an even number. In the more concrete setting of ransomware, plaintext under consideration are not mathematical structures but large complex data formats such as PDF documents. This model lends itself better to less-efficient statistical approach for verifying that the encryption process has been followed according to specification.

Let’s assume all files are encrypted using a hybrid-encryption scheme:

  • For each file/object to be encrypted, a random symmetric key is generated and bulk data is encrypted using a symmetric block-cipher such as AES.
  • The symmetric key is in turn encrypted using a fixed public-key cryptosystem such as RSA using the public-key of the trustee. This “wrapped” key is saved with the output of the bulk encryption.

This is similar to the format used by email encryption standards such as PGP and S/MIME. It is also how Wannacry operates, with an additional level of indirection. It generates a unique 2048-bit RSA keypair on each infected target and then encrypts that private-key using a different, fixed RSA public-key, presumably held by the ransomware crooks.  That means revealing the private-key used in step #2 is sufficient to decrypt all ciphertexts created according to this recipe.

There is one major difference between ransomware and the more legitimate, voluntary backup scenarios sketched out earlier: in the latter case the user can be certain of the public-key used for the encryption—because they performed the encryption themselves. In the former situation, they have just stumbled open a collection of ciphertext along with a ransom note asserting that all data has been encrypted using the process above with a private-key held by the author. Some proof is required that this claim is legitimate and the author is in possession of private-key required to recover their data. (Similar to fake DDoS threats, one can imagine fake ransomware authors reaching out to users to offer assistance, with no real capability to decrypt anything.)

A naive solution is to challenge the private-key holder to decrypt a handful of ciphertexts, effectively asking for free samples. But such a protocol can be cheated if it works by sending the full ciphertext or even the wrapped symmetric-key produced in step #2. For all we know, the ransomware encrypts each file using random symmetric keys and then stores those keys in a database. (In other words, it does not use a single public-key to wrap each of the symmetric keys; that part of the ciphertext is a decoy.) This operation could still respond to every challenge query successfully with the correct symmetric keys, by doing database lookups. But the encryption does not conform to the expected pattern above; there is no single private-key to unlock all files. In effect the user would be paying for a bogus key that has no bearing on the ability to decrypt ciphertexts of interest.



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