Last Friday, science fiction became reality. In countless movies about the future terrors of our digital world, doomsday scenarios have ranged from hackers taking over nuclear power stations to siphoning off millions from bank accounts. But on Friday the most improbable of terrible predictions of cybercrime came true.
A massive ransomware attack affected over 100 countries, crippling courier giant FedEx, Spain’s largest telco Telefonica, Britain’s national health care service, French car maker Renault and Russia’s interior ministry. Ransomware is software that locks people out of their own computers and restricts access to their data until a ransom is paid.
This attack could have been worse but for a 22-year-old cyber security researcher in the United Kingdom, who lives at home with his parents, who noticed an usually spelt domain name in the so-called WannaCry ransomware code. By setting up the domain, which cost US$10.69 (R143), he stopped the attack spreading as the code checked in for instructions.
Suddenly all the paranoid warnings of internet security firms became real. After Friday, May 12, the world will never be the same again. It’s the day the world realised how dependent it is on the computer systems that run everything from nuclear power stations to healthcare to delivering packages to making phone calls. And how easily it can be compromised.
Worse still, as that 22-year-old accidental hero has warned, it could happen again.
The most terrifying aspect of this massive attack is that the malware used was reportedly created by the American government’s National Security Agency (NSA). This malware was part of a massive dump of such software last month. It is as terrifying as it is an expected.
Just as worrying, the attack utilised the fundamentals of this global interconnectedness that we now live in: the dominant operating system used by most computer users around the world, Microsoft Windows. Because it is used by an estimated 1.25bn Windows computers, Microsoft vulnerabilities indirectly affect us all. Microsoft releases “patches” to plug any recently discovered gaps in its security, but which this ransomware exploited. Sadly, as will so many patches in the past, people failed to do the update; or restart their computers for the patch to be installed.
And equally scary, would-be hackers no longer even need to have the technical skills to write the malicious software (malware) themselves. It can easily be found all over the web, as well as through ransomware providers that let cyber criminals lock up hapless user’s computers; and then these services take a cut of the ransom money.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation figures, ransomware attacks hit $1bn last year.
Security firm Kaspersky Lab said in 2016 “attacks on business increased three-fold between January and the end of September: the difference between an attack every two minutes and one every 40 seconds. For individuals the rate of increase went from every 20 seconds to every 10 seconds.” It added: “One in five small and medium-sized business who paid the ransom never got their data back.”
To avoid this, do these three things immediately: run several back-ups of your data, including off-site; always do the software patch updates and as soon as they come out; and buy security software and keep it updated (I use Kaspersky).
And be afraid. Be very afraid.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail