Santa's Ransomware Incident
I’d arranged to meet Santa at the North Pole Pub. Most customers had left and the bar was almost empty. He was sitting at his usual table in the corner by the door, an assortment of bottles and glasses in front of him.
“Ho, ho, ho” he greeted me, but with little enthusiasm. His suit was dirty and crumpled, and even his white beard was looking a pale shade of grey.
“Tough Christmas?” I asked.
He looked down at his half-empty glass, as if the answer might be there. “The worst”, he replied. “Very, very stressful”.
And then he told me what had happened.
“It was ransomware. Bloody ransomware. We’ve been hit by it before and no doubt we’ll be hit by it again. But this time it was particularly bad.”
He looked up from his glass and looked me straight in the eye. “As you know, we’ve carefully segmented and firewalled all our networks. We don’t accept emails, which limits our exposure to phishing attacks. All our elves are well-trained - thanks to your Plan424 system each of them knows exactly what to do in any emergency. And when somebody attacks us, they generally go after what they think is our most important asset. The List.”
“The List isn’t the most critical asset?” I hadn’t given much thought to Santa’s IT assets before.
“Not even close. Outsiders think the Naughty and Nice list is our most important asset, but it isn’t. Yes, we keep it carefully backed up. But it doesn’t change that often. If we were forced to re-use last year’s list I doubt anybody would notice. I could offer The List for sale on the dark web nobody would buy it. You could even publish it on the Risky Thinking website and everybody would just say it was a fake list of names. It’s really not that critical.”
“So what did they go after?” I asked. “If you tell me what happened maybe our readers can avoid similar problems.”
He paused, and I could tell from his distant expression that he was deciding carefully just how much it was safe to tell me. Then he replied.
“Well, there are quite a few systems that are more important than The List. There’s the intelligence gathering system our informants use to tell us who is naughty and who is nice. It would be embarrassing if people found out too much about how that worked. But - like the list - it’s not particularly time critical. Then there’s the ERM system: organizing the worldwide production of millions of presents is hard. That would normally be critical, but by Christmas Eve production is long finished. And of course there’s the payroll system: our elves may like working here but they also like to be paid.”
Santa took a another long sip of his beer. “But this was a Bad Elf situation. They knew exactly which system to go for.”
“A Bad Elf situation? You mean an insider attack?”
“Precisely. There’s one system we can’t do without on Christmas Eve. The one system they knew we couldn’t do without. The SSS. The Sleigh Scheduling System. There’s no way we can deliver presents all over the world in an unbelievably short period of time without it. Insiders know what hurts the most. And our insider knew that at Christmas this was the most critical of all systems.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well we knew from the start it was an inside job. We employ strict least-privilege principles, and our systems are carefully air-gapped and firewalled. So we knew it had to be an elf who worked on the Sleigh Scheduling System. We also knew that whatever we did with our regular staff might be leaked to the extortioners, so we moved our negotiations to a team of outside professionals. We delayed as much as we could, but the extortioners knew we had a deadline which we couldn’t afford to miss. If we didn’t deliver by Christmas Day, nobody would ever believe in us again. So we negotiated the amount down as much as we could and then paid the ransom. We had no other choice.”
“Did you have insurance? I know that some companies have insurance for this sort of thing.”
“Cyber-insurance for ransomware is increasingly expensive. And insurers regard the North Pole as a very high risk location. So we had chosen to accept the risk ourselves.”
“So you payed them?”
“We didn’t have any choice at the time. But we do have a couple of advantages that the extortioners hadn’t reckoned with. Advantages that other organizations don’t have. We have the best intelligence system on the planet. We know exactly who is naughty or nice and why. So it didn’t take us long to identify the criminals we were dealing with. And after a discreet discussion with one of our bigger elves they decided to give the ransom back. It seems that nobody wants their children and their children’s children put on the Naughty List. Criminals just don’t think of that when they try to threaten us.”
“And the Bad Elf?”
He smiled. This was safer territory. “We moved him to where he couldn’t do any harm. We also got him into rehab. There’s a lot of gambling at the North Pole, and he was desperately trying to pay off his debts. That made him an easy mark for cybercriminals. In other circumstances he would have been a Good Elf, but with gambling debts piling up the temptation was just too much.”
With that Santa drained his pint and stood up. He seemed happier now that he had told someone what had happened. I offered to buy him another drink, but he declined… “Can’t be seen drunk in charge of a sleigh” he grinned as he pulled open the door and disappeared into the frigid polar night.