Solicitors are being asked to play their part in keeping the UK safe online by helping to tackle a rise in payments being made to ransomware criminals.
In a joint letter, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ask the Law Society to remind its members of their advice on ransomware and emphasise that paying a ransom will not keep data safe or be viewed by the ICO as a mitigation in regulatory action.
In their letter, the NCSC – which is a part of GCHQ – and the ICO state that they have seen evidence of a rise in ransomware payments, and that in some cases solicitors may have been advising clients to pay, in the belief that it will keep data safe or lead to a lower penalty from the ICO.
The two organisations ask the Law Society to clarify to its members that this is not the case, and that they do not encourage or condone paying ransoms, which can further incentivise criminals and will not guarantee that files are returned.
Ransomware involves the encrypting of an organisation’s files by cyber criminals, who demand money in exchange for providing access to them. These attacks are becoming more sophisticated and damaging and the UK Government is working with partners across the board to mitigate the threat. With this in mind, in December 2021 the National Cyber Strategy was launched to provide £2.6bn of new investment and strengthen the UK’s role as a responsible cyber power. Tackling cyber crime, in particular ransomware, is at the heart of the strategy which aims at increasing capability of law enforcement partners so they can better respond to cyber attacks. For instance, the National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) within the National Crime Agency (NCA) was created to bring together law enforcement experts into a single elite unit. There is also an established network of regional cyber crime units (ROCUs) to provide access to specialist capabilities across the country.
NCSC CEO Lindy Cameron said: “Ransomware remains the biggest online threat to the UK and we do not encourage or condone paying ransom demands to criminal organisations.“Unfortunately we have seen a recent rise in payments to ransomware criminals and the legal sector has a vital role to play in helping reverse that trend.“Cyber security is a collective effort and we urge the legal sector to work with us as we continue our efforts to fight ransomware and keep the UK safe online.”
John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner, added: “Engaging with cyber criminals and paying ransoms only incentivises other criminals and will not guarantee that compromised files are released. It certainly does not reduce the scale or type of enforcement action from the ICO or the risk to individuals affected by an attack.
“We’ve seen cyber crime costing UK firms billions over the last five years. The response to that must be vigilance, good cyber hygiene, including keeping appropriate back up files, and proper staff training to identify and stop attacks. Organisations will get more credit from those arrangements than by paying off the criminals.
“I want to work with the legal profession and NCSC to ensure that companies understand how we will consider cases and how they can take practical steps to safeguard themselves in a way that we will recognise in our response should the worst happen.”
In the event of a ransomware attack or other cyber crimes, organisations should report directly an ongoing incident to Action Fraud (on 0300 123 2040 which is available 24/7), Information Commissioner’s Office (for data breaches under the GDPR), or to the NCSC for any major cyber incidents. Law enforcement will then be able to mitigate the impact of the attack and secure evidence that can assist an investigation.
The ICO will recognise when organisations have taken steps to fully understand what has happened and learn from it, and, where appropriate, they have raised their incident with the NCSC and they can evidence that they have taken advice from or can demonstrate compliance with appropriate NCSC guidance and support.
The NCSC has a wide range of guidance on mitigating the ransomware threat, for example advising companies to keep offline back-ups. All of its advice can be found on its ransomware pages. The ICO recently updated ransomware guidance can be found on its website.