Cryptojacking Continues Crushing Records

In the early 2020s, ransomware raced upward quarter after quarter, with seemingly no end in sight. But its rush to ascendence was so rapid that it caught the attention of law enforcement, governments and cybersecurity staff, who began working overtime to raise awareness and prevent attacks, and to more quickly catch attackers and bring them to justice when they did occur.

When high-profile cybercriminal arrests occur, it’s often said that one bust is unlikely to move the needle when it comes to cybercrime. But what about dozens? We’re halfway into 2023, and it looks like out of these busts, general network hardening and a growing emphasis on resiliency, something seems to be having an effect.

According to exclusive threat data published in the 2023 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report Mid-Year Update, ransomware fell a staggering 41% in the six months between New Year’s Day and the 30th of June, with every region seeing a decline. Combined with 2022 data, which shows volume falling in every quarter save Q4, lower ransomware volumes have gone from being an anomaly or part of the background ebb-and-flow to bona fide trend. But why?

We’re All Just Looking for Security. (Even Cybercriminals.)

It’s already becoming harder to believe, but there was a time when cybercriminals aspired to be household names. Ransomware groups attempted to trade on their reputation to more reliably collect huge sums of money, but in the age of greater scrutiny, notoriety has become a liability.

To be clear, ransomware isn’t going away—threat trends are cyclical, and despite being despicable, crime still pays. But based on our data, cybercriminals in 2023 seem to be favoring a much greater degree of subtlety, slinking back into the shadows to conduct their craft in secret. When the question changes from “How can we make the most money possible” to “How can we best make money without getting caught,” the answer changes, too—and so far this year, that answer has been encrypted threats, IoT malware and cryptojacking.

Attacks over HTTPs rose 22% in the first half of 2023, enough to give SonicWall the highest year to date volume of any year since SonicWall began tracking this threat type. And IoT malware jumped to 77.9 million, up 37% over this time in 2022 and higher than any other six-month period on record. But it was cryptojacking that saw the most growth.

Cryptojacking’s Climb Accelerates

Until 2022, cryptojacking hits had never surpassed the 100 million mark during any year. But the full-year total for 2022 reached 139.3 million, a record high.

In 2023, cryptojacking had surpassed even that high water mark by early April … and then continued to grow. In all, cryptojacking volume in the first half of 2023 reached 332.3 million, an increase of 399% year-to-date.

Four months out of six set new monthly volume records, and the amount of cryptojacking seen in May 2023—77.6 million hits—eclipsed the full year totals recorded in 2018 and 2019, and easily surpassed total mid-year volume for 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Who’s Being Targeted?

In short, everyone: Every region saw an increase in cryptojacking compared with the first half of 2022. With the exception of Asia, which saw just 1% more cryptojacking year-to-date, these spikes were substantial. Latin America recorded 32% more cryptojacking than in the first half of 2022, but even this was small compared with the 345% increase observed in North America. Worse, Europe saw a staggering 788% spike.

A country-by-country look also shows massive increases. The U.S. saw 340% more cryptojacking hits than in the first six months of 2022. And in Europe, Germany and the U.K. recorded increases of 139% and 479% respectively. India provided a rare counterexample—cryptojacking hits there actually fell 73% year to date.

Cryptojacking by Industry

Unfortunately, a look at cryptojacking by industry shows no such bright spots. In all the industries we studied in depth, cryptojacking was up—and not just a little bit.

To be clear, cryptojacking numbers were quite small leading up to 2023—and any time you’re dealing with fairly small numbers growing very quickly, percentage increases become a less useful way to look at this change than factor increases.

In the first six months of 2023, the number of cryptojacking hits on retail customers more than doubled, with the average percentage of customers targeted each month rising from .06% to .3%.

Finance customers saw 4.7 times the number of cryptojacking hits, with percentage targeted on a monthly basis increasing from .05% to .36%.

Those working in healthcare recorded 69 times the number of hits than in the first half of 2022, with the percentage of customers targeted spiking from .06% to .32%.

Our government customers were targeted by 89 times the amount of cryptojacking compared with this time last year—with average percentage of customers seeing an attack each month jumping from .17% to .37%.

But education customers recorded the biggest increase: Cryptojacking on education customers skyrocketed to a staggering 320 times the number of attacks recorded in the first half of 2022, with the percentage of customers being targeted monthly averaging .19% last year and .55% this year.

Where Will Cryptojacking Go from Here?

While any prediction is an imprecise science, based on historical data alone, we can expect cryptojacking to continue to rise as 2023 wears on. But even if it doesn’t, cryptojacking volumes for 2023 still stand an excellent chance of surpassing the combined volumes of every year before it, all the way back to 2018 when SonicWall began tracking this threat type.

Regardless of what happens, SonicWall will continue to closely monitor cryptojacking levels—and with the threat of cryptojacking on the rise, expect expanded coverage of this attack type when our next Cyber Threat Report is released at the beginning of 2024.

Until then, you can learn more about cryptojacking, ransomware and other threats—along with which locations and industries are being targeted—in the Mid-Year Update to the 2023 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report.

First-Half 2023 Threat Intelligence: Tracking Cybercriminals Into the Shadows

Over the past five years, cybercriminal groups have become increasingly corporatized. The early 2020s even saw them starting to market themselves as they endeavored to become widely known — both to be taken more seriously and to build a reputation for “fair” dealings with their victims. Lesser-known groups were even known to borrow the branding of larger groups, hoping to cash in on the brand recognition surrounding them.

But while the paychecks kept pouring in, cybercriminal groups seemed to lose sight of one thing: they weren’t legal entities in the way the corporations they emulated were. In fact, there was nothing legal about them at all, as many were reminded when politicians and law enforcement ramped up enforcement efforts and they found the long arm of the law pointed squarely in their direction.

After every cybercriminal arrest, the same refrain is repeated: “We applaud the efforts of law enforcement, but we don’t expect the bust to bring about lasting change.” But a look at data from the first half of 2023, as reported in the just-released Mid-Year Update to the 2023 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report brings this accepted notion into question, as we’ve seen threat actors begin to shun the spotlight and focus more on lower-risk activities such as cryptojacking, IoT malware and encrypted threats.

A graph depicting the rise of cryptojacking hits in 2023.

Malware Continues its Migration

Malware remained essentially flat year-to-date, falling just two percent compared with the first half of 2022. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of change going on below the surface. With 1.3 billion hits (out of a global total of 2.7 billion), North America still sees the lion’s share of malware, but it was also the only region to record a decrease. In contrast, Europe and LATAM saw double-digit growth, suggesting that cybercriminals are shifting their attention to new shores.

Customers working in education and finance saw particularly large increases in malware, though none of the industries we examined showed a decrease.

Ransomware is Down, but Poised for a Turnaround

If cybercriminals are showing a greater interest in remaining under the radar, then a decrease in ransomware — a form of cybercrime that relies on the threat actors announcing and introducing themselves — should be expected. Still, with attack volumes down 41% over the first six months of 2022, many might wonder whether cybercriminals are giving up on ransomware for good.

There are a number of reasons we don’t think so, one of which is the trend line for ransomware as we moved through 2023. While the year-to-year trend line still points downward, on a month-by-month basis, we’ve actually seen ransomware rise, with a second quarter 74% higher than the first.

Cryptojacking’s Record Surge Continues

But if ransomware is down, what’s rising to take its place? We’ve seen an increase in several attack types, but perhaps the most pronounced has been in cryptojacking.  The number of cryptojacking hits reached 332 million hits in the first half of 2023, up a staggering 399% year-to-date. This not only represents a new record high — it also puts 2023 on track to see more cryptojacking hits than all other years on record combined.

IoT Malware Jumps by More Than a Third

SonicWall Capture Labs threat researchers noted a continued increase in the amount of IoT malware in the first half of 2023, jumping 37% to 77.9 million. At this rate, the number of IoT malware attacks will easily eclipse last year’s total, itself a record high.

As we’ve seen with other threat types, North America saw a decrease in attacks. At a modest 3%, however, this dip was more than made up for by triple-digit jumps in Asia and Latin America. India, in particular, saw an outsized number of these attacks: IoT malware there skyrocketed 311%.

Malicious PDF and Office Files Fall by Double Digits

The number of attacks involving malicious PDFs dropped 10% in the first six months of 2023, but there was an even bigger decrease in the use of malicious Microsoft Office files: Those attacks fell a staggering 75% compared with the same time period in 2022. Some of this drop may be due to Microsoft’s recent efforts to increase security, but time will tell whether this is a sustained downturn or whether cybercriminals make inroads around these new restrictions.

“The seemingly endless digital assault on the enterprise, governments and global citizens is intensifying and the threat landscape continues to expand,” said SonicWall President and CEO Bob VanKirk. “Threat actors are relentless, and as our data indicates, more opportunistic than ever before, targeting schools, federal governments and retail organizations at unprecedented rates. The 2023 SonicWall Mid-Year Cyber Threat Report helps us understand both the criminal mindset and behavior, which will in turn help organizations protect themselves and build stronger defenses against malicious activities.”

Read the full report here.