Human Operated Ransomware

As technology advances and organizations adopt a more digital approach for storing data, providing services, and carrying out business operations, the risk of cyber-security threats and attacks grows exponentially.  Ransomware attacks are a category of malware (malicious software) attacks or threats that aim to target and infiltrate an enterprise network to obtain access to sensitive data.

Over the years, many global organizations have fallen victim to the adverse consequences of ransomware attacks. However, they will continue to be at risk in the upcoming years if in-depth threat intelligence and advanced cyber-security practices are not ensured.

What Is Human-Operated Ransomware? 

A human-operated ransomware attack is a type of hands-on-keyboard cyber-security attack and is more expensive and dangerous than traditional cyber-security threats. Due to higher profitability and better control over the victim’s network, data, and resources, many ransomware operators have started to opt for human-operated ransomware attacks.

Compared to automated cyber-security attacks like commodity ransomware attacks, human-operated ransomware is far more orchestrated. Instead of a single device, the attackers target and infiltrate whole organizations by utilizing their knowledge of the common system and taking advantage of vulnerabilities and security misconfigurations in their IT network infrastructure.

A few distinctive features of human-operated ransomware attacks include lateral movement with the network, credential theft, and elevating the privileged access of encrypted data. These hands-on-keyboard attacks typically occur during scheduled service outages (maintenance windows), making it easier for attackers to detect gaps in the organization’s security operations and IT network infrastructure.

It is essential to note that human-operated ransomware attacks can bring forward disastrous outcomes for an organization’s business operations. Furthermore, these attacks are complex to resolve and will threaten the organization’s data after the initial access until adequate vulnerability management and better security operations are not ensured against future attacks.

How Does A Human-Operated Ransomware Attack Occur? 

To successfully carry out human-operated ransomware campaigns, skilled cyber-attackers utilize a strategic three-step process which is as follows:

Gaining Initial Access

The first step in a human-operated ransomware attack involves gaining initial access to the network environment using an identity attack or a commodity malware like Trojans. A Trojan malware provides the cyber-attacker remote access to the organization’s system, helping them proceed with their attack strategy.

Stealing Credentials And Escalating Privilege Levels

After the attackers gain initial access to the organization and its network and deploy Trojan malware, the next step in the attack is to obtain credentials and elevate the privileged access level. The human attacker performs a lateral movement within the enterprise network and steals credentials like passwords, banking details, etc., which assist in escalating privilege levels on a system. During this step, the attacker also locates an admin account that will provide them entry and access to the organization’s data.

Deployment Of Ransomware Payload

Once the attacker gains access to the organization’s data by utilizing advanced tools, they steal it and use it to their advantage. With their capabilities, the attackers encrypt data and deploy a ransomware payload to resources of their choice.

In human-operated ransomware campaigns, the attackers spread malware entities within the entire environment instead of a single device and make the stolen data inaccessible to the organization until a monetary ransom is submitted. Since this ransom demand can be of massive amounts and the attack is complex to tackle, business operations suffer from catastrophic outcomes.

Difference Between Human-Operated Ransomware And Traditional Ransomware

As stated in the above sections, human-operated ransomware is a more complex and expensive cyber-security threat than traditional ransomware. However, other differences set the two ransomware apart.

Attack Vectors

The initial attack or infection vectors deployed for obtaining access differ in traditional and human-operated ransomware. In a human-operated attack, the cyber-attacker exploits the security misconfigurations and acquires access into the organization via stolen credentials that assists them in lateral movement through the network for data theft.

On the other hand, traditional ransomware attacks like commodity ransomware attacks largely depend on malware delivery vectors like phishing emails for deploying ransomware into the victim’s network.

Impact Of Encryption

Ransomware attacks target an organization and its network to obtain access and encrypt sensitive data resources for acquiring ransom demands. While both traditional and human-operated ransomware adversely affects an organization’s services and business operations, the latter has a greater impact.

In human-operated ransomware campaigns, the human attackers use their capabilities, knowledge of the common system, and advanced tools to plant ransomware in an environment where the greatest impact would be. This amplifies the destructive effects on the business operations, making it difficult for the target organization to clean it up and burden them with high amounts of monetary ransom demanded by the attackers. Moreover, such an attack can pose a threat risk for future attacks.

Information Theft

The primary aim of attackers in ransomware attacks and cyber threats is to use the victim’s crucial data for their monetary benefit. While most traditional ransomware usually encrypts data, human-operated ransomware takes the attack one step ahead.

The threat actors involved in human-operated ransomware campaigns, along with encrypting accessed data, steal other highly valuable information like credentials, financial information, source codes, customer data, etc. Stealing such sensitive data allows the attackers to demand heavy monetary ransoms from the target organization.

Complicated Remediation

To tackle the spread of ransomware, strategic incident response and adequate thorough techniques are required that are usually time-consuming. Cleaning up traditional ransomware is still a bit less complex than human-operated ones as they only require malware removal.

In contrast, human-operated ransomware may require additional and lengthy remediation since the human attackers can control the entire organization and implant the malware in locations of great impact.

How To Prevent Human-Operated Ransomware Attacks?

Some precautionary steps organizations can follow are:

Employee Training On Cyber-Security Awareness

Training employees about human-operated ransomware and other cyber-security threats is the first step in protecting an organization and its business operations.

Promote awareness about cyber-security attacks, conduct training sessions on spotting and responding to human-operated attacks, and ensure that all employees are updated on the latest threat trends.

Backup Crucial Data

Human-operated ransomware campaigns make an organization’s data inaccessible by encrypting it and even threaten to steal and erase it if a certain ransom is not paid.

To avoid losing crucial data during possible cyber-security breaches, it is necessary to create regular hourly or daily backups to restore data whenever needed without having to pay ransoms.

Install Firewalls And Antimalware Software

An organization can achieve better network security by installing firewalls and antimalware software in its cyber environment.

A firewall is a device used for network security that monitors all incoming and outgoing traffic. This security device also filters the traffic and can even block or permit data packets according to a predetermined set of security rules.

On the other hand, antimalware software like Microsoft Defender can scan a system to detect and remove ransomware. Opting for such security measures can provide adequate ransomware protection and protect data from being encrypted or stolen.

Enforce Multi-Factor Authentication 

Threat actors take advantage of weakened security and gain access to credentials for obtaining data. Enforcing authentication methods like MFA for all systems and applications within the organization is an excellent tactic to prevent unauthorized access.

MFA requires users to provide several evidence factors to gain access to a system, application, or website. Using such a strategy makes it difficult for threat actors to take advantage of compromised credentials and limits the exposure to infection vectors used in human-operated ransomware attacks.

Implement Least Privilege And Zero-Trust Policies

The least privilege policy limits access rights by creating privileged roles, allowing the organization to grant access to those required to perform the job at hand. In contrast, the zero-trust framework requires all users within an organization to be continuously authenticated for security configurations before accessing data.

Both strategies can assist every industry in preventing the risk of human-operated ransomware campaigns by making detection easier, lateral movement more complex, and allowing only authorized users with privileged roles to access sensitive data.

Hire A Chief Security Officer (CSO)

Hiring a chief security advisor is a practical solution to look over resources and prevent the risk of cyber threats. This security professional has the right knowledge, offers advice on security operations, and has the required skills to manage and mitigate cyber-security threats that could affect an organization’s network infrastructure.

Carry Out Penetration Testings

Penetration tests or ethical hacking are cyber-attack simulations performed on computer systems to evaluate their security. Carrying out this security exercise frequently can enable an organization to detect, fix, and patch vulnerabilities within the security configurations.


With more industries going digital worldwide, high-risk ransomware attacks like human-operated ransomware are increasing in frequency day by day. It is why cyber-security professionals need to implement effective strategies to ward off threat actors and prevent the possibility of such cyber-attacks.

Derik Belair

As President and CEO, Derik leads the vision, strategy and growth of Augmentt. Prior to founding Augmentt, Derik was the Vice President at SolarWinds, leading the digital marketing strategy for SolarWinds’ Cloud division. Derik has been working in the channel for over 20 years, starting his career as a channel sales rep at Corel Corp. and eventually becoming the first employee at N-able Technologies in April of 2000.
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