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February 15, 2022

San Francisco 49ers Blindsided by Ransomware Attack on Super Bowl Sunday

The San Francisco 49ers confirmed on Sunday (February 13) that the team was targeted in a ransomware attack that caused a temporary disruption of its corporate IT network. The 49ers did not confirm whether the hackers were successful, but the team did say that they are still in the process of recovering systems while indicating that devices were likely encrypted.

What Happened?

While the NFL was getting ready for Super Bowl LVI, the San Francisco 49ers became the victim of a ransomware attack. The ransomware gang, BlackByte, listed the San Francisco 49ers as one of their victims on a dark website the ransomware gang generally uses to embarrass victims and force them into paying their extortion demands. The ransomware gang BlackByte posted some of the stolen team documents in a file they categorized as "2020 Invoices." The ransomware gang did not publicize any of its ransom demands or specify how much data it had stolen or encrypted. Upon learning of the incident, the 49ers initiated an investigation and took steps to contain the incident. The 49ers enlisted the services of third-party cybersecurity firms and law enforcement officials.

The BlackByte Ransomware Gang

The BlackByte ransomware began targeting business victims in July 2021. BlackByte targets its victim's files by encrypting them. After the files have been encrypted, the BlackByte ransomware gang will post a ransom note on the computer screen of its victims, which will alert them that they have to pay a ransom in order to have their files decrypted.

How Can Other NFL Teams Prevent This from Happening to Them?

In this era, network security can no longer be about disconnected solutions. People, processes, and technologies must be connected to enhance resiliency and more collectively defend against sophisticated ransomware attacks. NFL teams must be able to rely on their network security solutions when the stakes are high. News of the attack on the 49ers has led to cybersecurity and IT experts sharing their advice and recommendations on what the rest of the NFL can do to defend themselves against sophisticated and advanced ransomware attacks.

Robert Giannini, Chief Security Officer and CEO at GiaSpace

After learning about the 49ers, I would suggest all the franchises go out and get a 3rd party gap assessment on their networks and workflows by an experienced security firm.  Learning from how the 49ers were infiltrated and verifying that their surface area for the same type of attack is closed or monitored for suspicious activity.  NFL teams would be one of the primary leaders in cybersecurity defense if they looked at their networks like a defensive coordinator looks to hold on 4th down and 1 yard.  The playbook for protecting the end zone and defending the network coincide with one another as you have to learn the moves of your advisory that you're playing against and be a step ahead.

Jon Fausz, Director Of Operations of 4BIS.COM

It is always difficult to protect a company from cybercrime. Especially one with a target on their back the size of an NFL team. An effective Cybersecurity plan needs to be multifaceted, varied, and adaptive. I recommend following the NIST Cyber Security Framework as a basis for your Cyber strategy. These are recommendations from the US Government for a foundation to build your cybersecurity policies. The framework is broken into 5 groups: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. From there, you can implement processes and tools to help you strengthen those areas.

Too many organizations think they are protected, but it is impossible to 100% protect a network in today's global world. Your employees would revolt, productivity would suffer, and there is a large chance it would not work anyway. Too long have businesses been focused only on protection. A better firewall or more anti-virus will not stop these threats. You must identify your weaknesses and detect compromises as fast as possible. Then your strategy must be flexible enough to respond to the threat at lightning speed. Hopefully, then you are only recovering a breach from a single endpoint and not the entire network. After that, the loop starts again to identify what happened and make adjustments.

Cybersecurity in the modern work environment is ever-evolving. Working with trusted partners to help and verify your methodology is always a winning play.

Kenny Riley, Technical Director at Velocity IT

Avoiding ransomware in your organization requires implementing some IT best practices, along with company-wide policies and procedures for prevention and response.

  • Ensure that you have proper backups in place and test restores regularly to ensure the integrity of your data. Backups should be encrypted and stored on air-gapped hardware that is inaccessible from the internet and the local network of your office to prevent a ransomware event from compromising your backups.
  • Create and maintain a basic cybersecurity incident response plan that outlines response and notification procedures for a ransomware event.
  • Regularly patch and update all workstations and servers to the latest available versions.
  • Audit public-facing internet services, especially remote desktops, and ensure that access is limited to local and VPN traffic only or specific IP addresses that you want to allow.
  • Implement cybersecurity awareness training in your organization to ensure that you and your employees stay up to date with how to correctly identify and report suspicious activity and malicious emails. Perform periodic organization-wide phish testing to gauge user awareness.

Troy Drever, President of Pure IT

As the threat landscape continues to evolve, businesses of all sizes – large, small, and everything in between, including high-profile corporations such as the San Francisco 49ers - must continue to evolve their security posture and practices to defend themselves from the myriad of threats that exist today and evolve tomorrow. Unfortunately, there is no one solution to preventing ransomware. I cannot emphasize enough that preventing ransomware requires a layered approach to security.

One of the most important aspects of cybersecurity is education. The end-user is the weakest link to a potential cyber-attack. Ongoing cybersecurity training and testing is a must. This training is readily available from I.T. service companies to help businesses of all sizes to access high-quality, ongoing security training for their staff. Multi-Factor Authentication is another key defense used to protect corporate systems from hackers. This security measure is very affordable for all sizes of organizations and provides a strong deterrent for hackers to attack a system.

With COVID-19, the work from home revolution has created a huge security risk for corporations. DNS filtering is a key system used to protect end-users that are not behind the corporate firewall from ending up on the wrong website where they can easily be compromised. Another key security measure is Managed Threat Response. It's no longer enough to deploy anti-virus and anti-malware systems. Those systems must be managed 24x7 by a Security Operations Center who are highly skilled and trained in threat hunting and remediation of threats in corporate environments. This is possible today for even smaller organizations who cannot afford their own 24x7 security team to outsource that function to a Managed Services Provider who can provide that service for them.

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