Irish researchers unite to battle growing ransomware threat

30 Jun 2017

Members of the ‘Cybersecurity in the 21st Century’ panel speaking at the Data Summit. From left: Richard Browne, Department of Communications; Zeta Dooly, TSSG/Waterford IT; Dr Michael Madden, NUI Galway; and Tom Keating, FireEye. Image: NUIG

2017 has been awash with major cybersecurity threats, as ransomware finally reached mainstream discussion. Irish researchers are fighting back.

With WannaCry and Petya/GoldenEye doing the rounds, it’s easy to assume that the cyberattacks we’re experiencing are never-ending.

Ransomware, with all its grisly efficiency, is proving to be the 2017 bête noire, a mere six months into the year.

There are some people looking to address this issue, though, with a team of Irish researchers and research bodies now showing their hand.

Researchers unite

The growth of cyberattacks internationally has provided the impetus for developing a national research initiative on cybersecurity in Ireland, which is being led by Dr Michael Madden of NUI Galway (NUIG).

Called S4 (Scientific Solutions for Secure Society), the initiative will create a partnership between the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, the Lero Irish Software Engineering Research Centre and the Connect Centre for future research on networks and communications.

Researchers from NUIG, Dublin City University, Athlone IT, Waterford IT, University College Dublin and University of Limerick will be involved in the project.

The team thinks that with the harnessing of synergies between academics, industry, state agencies and international collaborators, the country’s resilience to threats will be improved.

With additional employment hoped for, too, Madden and his colleagues have already held workshops and conventions in recent weeks to plan for this new reality.

Claiming Ireland, like all countries, faces “significant security threats”, Madden said that more than half of all Irish companies reported a data breach last year.

“Cybercrime is estimated to have cost Irish companies €600m in 2015, and this is projected to reach €1bn by 2020,” he said.

“In addition, we have seen large-scale data breaches experienced by multinational organisations internationally, such as Yahoo and JP Morgan, even before the recent disruption caused by this new ransomware.”

Prepare for attack

The new initiative will focus on four research pillars: AI for security, web-scale security analytics, edge-to-cloud security, and trust and privacy management.

“It is clear from the feedback received … that there is great capacity for closer academic and industry collaboration on security research, and many opportunities for growing this important area of research and the overall security ecosystem in Ireland,” said Madden.

As part of the announcement, NUIG included five steps to help guard against ransomware attacks.

  • “Make sure you have backups in place for your important data, and that they are running correctly. The best response to a ransomware attack is to erase your computer [hard drive], reinstall your programs, and restore your documents, photos and other data from backups.”
  • “Have Windows auto updates turned on. There was an update from Microsoft about a month ago to fix the specific weakness that was exploited by WannaCry, but new ransomware programs will make use of newly discovered exploits.”
  • “Have Windows Firewall and Windows Defender active. Use additional antivirus software if possible and, if you do, keep it running and up to date.”
  • “Whenever you receive an email message with a link or attachment, take great care to ensure that it is legitimate and expected before clicking.”
  • “If in doubt, just don’t open links or attachments. Contact the sender to verify whether they really sent the message.”

If these steps prove unsuccessful, Madden’s advice is simple: don’t pay up.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic