The negotiators taking on the ransomware hackers

Kurtis Minder has spent the past year negotiating six-figure ransom demands from gangs of ruthless criminals.

Not for the safe return of kidnap victims, but for the release of valuable data that is being held hostage by hackers.

Ransomware attacks, which see hackers lock up data or computer systems until they are paid off, have been one of the biggest cyber security headaches for the private and public sectors in the past year.

Gangs of ransomware hackers made more than $350m in 2020, a 311 per cent jump on the previous year, according to the software company Chainalysis. The true figure is likely to be far more given many victims do not disclose when they have been attacked and made a payout. Some analysts estimate that the cost to businesses from the disruption is now as high as $20bn a year.

In response, an industry of negotiators has sprung up to help the thousands of companies, schools, local authorities and even hospitals navigate the aftermath of a crippling attack. Minder said his cyber intelligence company, GroupSense, started offering negotiation services, for $350 an hour, after requests from desperate clients. 

“You have to approach [the negotiation] mechanically and effectively as a transaction,” he said, adding that there was little point in hurling invectives at the hackers. “We don’t need to tell the threat actor that they’re a bad person,” he said, with a laugh. “They know that. It does not help us achieve our goal.”

The FBI discourages paying ransoms, arguing that it does not guarantee that data will be released, and that it incentivises hackers to continue. But most organisations feel they have little choice.

The aim for Minder is to try to haggle down the ransom demands “as low as possible as quickly as possible” and then handle the payment of any funds, often in cryptocurrencies.

And it also requires some soft skills. “The second part of my job that does not get talked about much is counselling companies that are very, very angry or small businesses where it’s very emotional…