When the charm offensive didn’t work, threat actors just opted to be offensive

In 2020, those of us who report on ransomware attacks witnessed what some described as a “charm offensive” — spokespeople for ransomware groups granting interviews to journalists in which the threat actors tried to make themselves sound like professionals who have an ethics code and who are just trying to provide for their families.

Those of us granted interviews dutifully reported their claims or statements while our readers understandably snickered at some statements in our reports.

That was then. This is now. In 2021, after the seizure of DarkSide’s servers and their disappearance, and after REvil disappeared following the Kaseya attack, the charm offensive seems to have gone by the wayside, only to be replaced by a more aggressive posture by ransomware groups.

In the past month, several groups have started warning victims not to contact the FBI or use professional negotiators, because if they do, the threat actors will cut off negotiations and just dump all the data or sell it.  Ragnar_Locker, DoppelPaymer, and Grief all issued statements and jumped on board with threats that if victims go to the FBI or negotiators, they would be punished.  And now it seems that if victims go to the media or if researchers give information to the media that is published, the victims will be punished harshly for that, too.

Yesterday, Conti threat actors threatened that if journalists commit journalism by reporting on Conti’s negotiations with victims — negotiations that they fail to properly secure from observing eyes — we will somehow be responsible for the victims having all their data dumped or sold.  Conti used their attack and negotiations with JVCKenwood to allegedly demonstrate their seriousness.

The thin veneer of professionalism and attempt at charm is gone. We are now warned to not get in the way of threat actors trying to extort money by reporting on their extortion attempts while they are in progress.

We are warned not to interfere but instead, to aid and abet these criminals by remaining silent, in which case some journalists may get statements or favorable treatment from them?

Once again, threat actors have shown that they do not understand the psychology of the people they try to extort or threaten. They claim to respect journalism and security reporting “when it is done properly.” Their notion of “properly”  and “ethically displeasing” seem to translate as “reporting that doesn’t expose our crimes in progress.”

Conti's announcement
Image: DataBreaches.net

Security reporter Catalin Cimpanu has reported in more detail on Conti’s announcement on The Record.  But elsewhere, he was more blunt in his reaction to their threats:

As others commented on Twitter, Conti has simply shown journalists how to help cut off the funds and rewards for their attacks — report on the attack and negotiations, and then the threat actors will cut off negotiations and lose all their possible payment from the victim.

Now it’s true that journalists have an ethical code that includes not harming people or adding to the harm victims experience. And as a someone who reports on cybercrime, this blogger has included chat transcripts or screencaps at times — but generally after negotiations have appeared to stop. And I generally only report on a chat transcript when there’s something newsworthy — like threat actors brazenly (or just idiotically) demanding $60 million from a k-12 school district, or a firm claiming that they haven’t negotiated with threat actors at all when a transcript appears to tell a different story.

But for Conti to threaten us for reporting?  Conti may find that their announcement backfires badly on them.

Someone asked me if I really believe Conti or other groups will really forego any chance of payment and just dump data. No, I don’t believe they would do that. That would involve them keeping their word on something and we’ve already seen that they don’t do that. Give up the chance to extort money by just dumping data? Not likely other than an isolated time or two.

Last updated October 3 at 6:29 pm to include last paragraph with response to a question received.

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