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Lockbit Take-Down

Many of us in the cybersecurity community woke this morning to very welcome news that the infamous Lockbit Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) crime syndicate was hit with a take-down action of much of its infrastructure. This was apparently led by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), and the FBI, as part of an international law enforcement task force known as ‘Operation Cronos’.

Lockbit was one of the most prolific and destructive Russian Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) groups, claiming over 2,000 victims worldwide and extorting over $120 million in ransom payments. It was, to put it mildly, ruthless, launching secondary and tertiary attacks against victims who refused to negotiate with the extortionists or to pay their extortion demands.

As part of its initial seeding of compromised networks with ransomware, it exfiltrated confidential information and threatened to publish this on its websites if payments were not made by the organization. When demanded ransoms were not received, the group contacted individuals whose information it had stolen, and demanded they pressure the victim organization to pay the ransom, or sometimes offered to exclude their information from a release if a payment was received.
Richard Staynings, Cylera
Richard Staynings, Cylera
“Many times, corporate and individual victims paid the gang only to see their information posted publicly anyway” claimed Richard Staynings, Chief Security Strategist with Cheltenham based cybersecurity firm Cylera. “There is after all, no trust in thieves,” he added.

The group was also known to publicly taunt victims on its web site with a countdown clock when the information would be published unless payment was made.

Operation Cronos appears to have finally brought this criminal RaaS business to a halt, or at the very least slowed it down and ruined its reputation. Whether it stops the affiliates who use the RaaS to execute their attacks remains to be seem as it's likely that many of the Lockbit tools are still out there and affiliates are likely to have copies of these. 

It’s also quite likely, that many of the un-indicted perpetrators involved in Lockbit, will simply pick up and move into new crime groups to continue to ply their crafts as part of other cybercrime services. This has happened in the past when law enforcement took down other crime syndicates. It is also possible that a new Lockbit rises from the ashes and starts over again, perhaps even under the same name with some of the same people.

Some of these crime syndicates are thought to be associated with the Russian Mafia and many in the past have worked closely with the Kremlin, FSB and GRU for espionage purposes, or to punish other nations, while Mother Russia can claim plausible deniability.

Many of the cybercriminals who engage in ransomware and other forms of cyber extortion, are of Russian origin and are able to attack victims from within Russia and other former Soviet states with near impunity. This is largely thanks to a lack of extradition treaties between these countries and the rest of the world, combined with a legal system that is easily corrupted by those with power, influence or money.

The FBI has accused Russia of harboring cybercriminals for years, where as long as the perpetrators of cyber crime direct their craft against victims outside of Russia, then the Russian state will conveniently turn a blind eye. This makes it particularly difficult to bring criminals to justice so long as they don't leave the former soviet block of countries.

Of course some wanted criminals used to considering themselves above the law have traveled outside of the former Soviet states and have been arrested or renditioned back to the United States for trial and punishment. One of the more notable of these was Roman Seleznev, the son of a close Putin confident and a member of the Duma lower house of parliament, Valery Seleznev as reported some time ago by this site

Lockbit was the largest RaaS and worked by selling its criminal services, acting as a one-stop shop to customers known as affiliates. These affiliates then identified and attacked victims using the Lockbit framework of tools and services. Based upon volume, the affiliates then received between 60% and 80% of the ransom payments they were able to extort back from Lockbit. The Lockbit network consisted of hundreds of so called ‘bullet proof’ servers located all over the world. These have now been taken over by law enforcement as part of the Europol action. Copies of the Lockbit code, however, remain on PCs and servers in Russia and other countries where international law enforcement was unable to seize assets, since the crime of ransomware is not recognized in many of these countries.

It was perhaps inevitable that the NCA would lead this takedown effort following a January 2023 ransomware attack against part of the UK Royal Mail in which packages could not be mailed overseas for many weeks. The attack was identified as using Lockbit so the group must have been in the sights of the NCA ever since. The Royal Mail is a critical infrastructure industry (CII) of the UK so any attack against a CII would have garnered attention at the highest levels, just as Lockbit attacks against the NHS have done so in the past.

“While not all cyber crimes can be fully investigated, I am sure that Lockbit and its affiliates were prioritized by the NCA and the UK government following the Royal Mail attack,” said Staynings. “Lockbit ransomware attacks against NHS trusts was already sure to get the NCA’s attention, so the Royal Mail attack may have been the nail in the coffin for the group.”

“Gangs would be well advised to stay clear of national infrastructure industries if they want to avoid unnecessary attention. That goes not just for the UK, but for any law-abiding western power,” Staynings added.

While the Lockbit infrastructure was taken offline and decryption advice and keys posted on its servers, law enforcement reportedly obtained access quite some time ago. It's highly likely that they have been digging around and gaining intelligence on affiliates and those involved in building and maintaining the Lockbit service. It is also likely that they were mapping out the entire infrastructure so as to capture as much of it as possible in one go with a single legal seizure action.

This has resulted in the identification, indictment, and arrest of many of the gang’s generals. But it has also shed light on a much greater number of victims than has been reported, many of whom appear to have paid ransoms against the advice of law enforcement and national laws in their respective countries that forbid extortion payments to terrorists. Ransom and extortion are, after all, forms of terrorism.

“The cat is now out of the bag, and we could see legal actions against business leaders and their legal counsel, who made ransom payments against national laws and hid a cyberattack from shareholders, and the SEC, FCA, and others,” claimed Staynings.

Graeme Biggar, NCA
Graeme Biggar, NCA
The NCA’s Graeme Biggar, said it assessed that the group was responsible for 25% of ransomware attacks in the last year including 200 that were known of in the UK - though he added that, there may have been many more. Indeed, total losses and damages from Lockbit and its affiliates could be in the billions of dollars. Whether this surpassed losses from ‘NotPetya’, another Russian cyberattack attributed to the Russian military GRU, remains to be seen.

NotPetya is thought to have caused between $10 and $12 billion in damages to global organizations attacked, including Maersk, Mondelez, Merck, WPP, Reckitt Benckiser, Saint-Gobain and TNT Express. 

Maersk alone lost $250 million and suffered a further $300 million in damages. The 2017 cyberattack currently stands as the single most damaging and costly attack of all time. Its attack code was designed to attack Ukraine, but the malware unintentionally spread right the way across the world, impacting Russian businesses as well.

As part of the seizures, more than 200 cryptocurrency accounts believed to be linked to Lockbit have been frozen, so it seems likely that once the investigation is complete, at least a few victims may receive some of their ransom payments returned, as has been the case in other confiscations.

“It’s great to see the home team win a game finally, but there’s a long way to the finals” claimed Staynings. “The trouble is that with cybercrime it takes many months or years to properly attribute actions. That includes victims, criminal actors, and all those involved in a cyberattack.”

“Undoubtedly, law enforcement needs to do things properly in order for prosecutions to stick and to identify all those involved in a criminal act. This was one of the better days, that’s for sure!” he concluded.