Visible to the public ‘Releasing the Hounds?’1 Disruption of the Ransomware Ecosystem Through Offensive Cyber Operations

Title‘Releasing the Hounds?’1 Disruption of the Ransomware Ecosystem Through Offensive Cyber Operations
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsBátrla, Michael, Harašta, Jakub
Conference Name2022 14th International Conference on Cyber Conflict: Keep Moving! (CyCon)
Keywordscomposability, Costs, cryptocurrency, Cyber incident, Cybercrime, Ecosystems, Industries, law enforcement, Metrics, offensive cyber operations, profitability, pubcrawl, ransomware, ransomware-as-a-service, resilience, Resiliency, user experience
AbstractRansomware groups represent a significant cyber threat to Western states. Most high-end ransomware actors reside in territorial safe-haven jurisdictions and prove to be resistant to traditional law enforcement activities. This has prompted public sector and cybersecurity industry leaders to perceive ransomware as a national security threat requiring a whole-of-government approach, including cyber operations. In this paper, we investigate whether cyber operations or the threat of cyber operations influence the ransomware ecosystem. Subsequently, we assess the vectors of influence and characteristics of past operations that have disrupted the ecosystem. We describe the specifics of the ransomware-as-a-service system and provide three case studies (DarkSide/BlackMatter, REvil, Conti) highly representative of the current ecosystem and the effect cyber operations have on it. Additionally, we present initial observations about the influence of cyber operations on the system, including best practices from cyber operations against non-state groups. We conclude that even professional, highly skilled, and top-performing ransomware groups can be disrupted through cyber operations. In fact, cyber operations can even bypass some limits imposed on law enforcement operations. Even when ransomware groups rebrand or resurface after a hiatus, we suggest their infrastructure (both technical, human, and reputational) will still suffer mid-to long-term disruption. Although cyber operations are unlikely to be a silver bullet, they are an essential tool in the whole-of-government and multinational efforts and may even grow in importance in the next several years.1'Releasing the hounds' is a term for offensive cyber operations aimed at disrupting global ransomware gangs, especially those conducted by militaries or intelligence agencies. First use is found in Patrick Gray and Adam Boileau, 'Feature Podcast: Releasing the Hounds with Bobby Chesney', Risky Business, 28 May 2020,
NotesISSN: 2325-5374
Citation Keybatrla_releasing_2022