Researchers Quietly Cracked Zeppelin Ransomware Keys

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Peter is an IT manager for a technology manufacturer that got hit with a Russian ransomware strain called "Zeppelin" in May 2020. He'd been on the job less than six months, and because of the way his predecessor architected things, the company's data backups also were encrypted by Zeppelin. After two weeks of stalling their extortionists, Peter's bosses were ready to capitulate and pay the ransom demand. Then came the unlikely call from an FBI agent. "Don't pay," the agent said. "We've found someone who can crack the encryption." Peter, who spoke candidly about the attack on condition of anonymity, said the FBI told him to contact a cybersecurity consulting firm in New Jersey called Unit 221B, and specifically its founder — Lance James. Zeppelin sprang onto the crimeware scene in December 2019, but it wasn't long before James discovered multiple vulnerabilities in the malware's encryption routines that allowed him to brute-force the decryption keys in a matter of hours, using nearly 100 cloud computer servers. In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, James said Unit 221B was wary of advertising its ability to crack Zeppelin ransomware keys because it didn't want to tip its hand to Zeppelin's creators, who were likely to modify their file encryption approach if they detected it was somehow being bypassed. This is not an idle concern. There are multiple examples of ransomware groups doing just that after security researchers crowed about finding vulnerabilities in their…

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