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What's the difference between extortionware and ransomware?

Enterprise threats expert Nick Lewis explains the difference between extortionware and ransomware in terms of what they are and how to defend against them.

How is extortionware different from ransomware? Are there different ways to defend against it?

Just as there are differences between extortion and ransom in non-cyber cases, there are differences between the cyberthreats extortionware and ransomware.

Extortionware is when a cybercriminal threatens a person or organization with some sort of harm by exposing personal or sensitive information. For example, a criminal could compromise a database with sensitive data and then tell the enterprise she will post the sensitive data on the Internet if her demands aren't met.

Ransomware is when a cybercriminal takes something from a person or organization and tells the victim she will not return what was taken unless her demands are met. For example, a criminal could break into a sensitive database, copy the database to a location only the criminal can access and then delete or modify the data. This is very similar to how the CryptoLocker malware works.

The basic defenses against extortionware and ransomware are pretty much the same; the most important defense being a good backup, followed closely by keeping systems patched and using accounts with least privilege.

Preventative measures go a long way. For example, enterprises could prevent data from becoming ransomware by practicing good backup hygiene and saving data to a separate system or device not connected to the potentially infected computer. To minimize the risk of posting unencrypted data on the Internet as a means of extortionware, enterprises should use encryption. However, note that in both of these instances, backup hygiene and encryption should not be the only security controls in place. Other basic defenses -- including business continuity and disaster recovery planning -- should also be part of a comprehensive information security program.

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Malware vs. ransomware: What's the difference?

This was last published in July 2015

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