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Calls for international support to fight ‘uncontrollable’ ransomware surge in developing countries

Rapidly growing internet penetration is outpacing implementation of appropriate cyber security standards while countries in Global South are excluded from benefits of international sanctions

Researchers at the UK’s leading defence and security think tank have called on the country and its cyber security authorities to tackle the increased targeting of ‘Global South’ countries with ransomware.

The industry has seen a rise in ransomware incidents targeting middle-income and developing countries such as Costa Rica, South Africa, Malaysia, Peru, Brazil, and India.

Such attacks threaten these countries’ economic development and political stability, among other areas, said Joseph Jarnecki and Jamie MacColl of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and high-income countries have a responsibility to expand their efforts to offer technical assistance.

The pair called on the likes of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to offer targeted nations in the Global South the same level of international support as it does to other allied nations.

The UK is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance along with the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Together, the nations regularly issue security advisories based on nation-backed research and share information on how to best protect against cyber threats.

“The NCSC has a strong global reputation and engages frequently with advanced countries and select UK partners,” said Jarnecki and MacColl. 

“By expanding its activities with smaller and underserved countries it can make strides in improving international cyber security while advancing the UK as a supporter of a safe and secure cyberspace.”

The recent ransomware attacks on the nation of Costa Rica by the Conti and Hive organisations have catalysed fresh conversations around the increased targeting of less-developed countries.

Conti was the first to breach Costa Rica in April, impacting 27 government institutions and threatening to overthrow the government if its $10 million ransom was not paid.

The country later declared a state of national emergency after scores of digital systems were left downed and public sector workers forced to switch to manual processes.

The country was later targeted by a second ransomware organisation, Hive, in late May - marking another growing trend of multiple hackers attacking a single organisation simultaneously.

Other nations in South America are also struggling to mitigate the threat of ransomware and the WannaCry strain is still the most common in the region, despite very few infections being observed outside of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia.

WannaCry caused significant destruction when it attacked the UK and Europe in 2017, but most systems patched against the EternalBlue exploit within a year.

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Experts told the Atlantic Council think tank in 2021 that the still-high rates of ransomware in the regions were due to a shortage of necessary skills to build a strong cyber posture. 

The RUSI researchers explained that the region was especially weak because it has seen a rapid increase in internet penetration in recent years but cyber security skills and practices have failed to keep up.

“The result is an increasing amount of vulnerable internet-facing infrastructure and services that ransomware operators are able to compromise,” they said.

The focus on international sanctions being led by the US may also be affecting victims’ appetite to pay ransom demands, in turn discouraging ransomware actors to target specific nations, the researchers said.

Global South nations also may not be able to engage in such sanctions or access the ransomware-mitigation tools required to adequately protect against attacks, they added.

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