Ransomware. To some, it still sounds like a plot in a futuristic thriller but gone are the days when a ransom was typically a monetary demand made in exchange for a kidnapped person’s safety (Or a pet’s! What would you pay for the release of Fluffy?). In this digital day and age, it’s more likely to be your data that’s at risk. So, what is this digital hostage-taker exactly, how does it work and, most importantly, how can you protect yourself? Plus, what does it have to do with a certain evolutionary biologist in the late 1980’s? We have the answers to your most pressing ransomware concerns.
Getting up close and personal: What is ransomware?
As the name suggests, ransomware is a type of malware that blocks users from accessing their files or even entire operating system until a ransom is paid. It locks the system’s screen or encrypts files until you do as it demands. If you’re a victim, you’ll receive a ransom note informing you that you must pay a certain amount of money—often in Cryptocurrencies—to free your system or data. There’s usually a deadline for completing the payment and if you fail to meet it, the cyber attackers could permanently delete your files or make them public. Sadly, even if you do pay the ransom, there’s no guarantee whatsoever you’ll be given the decryption key to regain access to your data. Honesty is not always the best policy among thieves…
Did you know that ransomware has a founding father? The first documented case was the 1989 AIDS Trojan. Evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Popp sent 20,000 floppy disks labelled “AIDS Information—Introductory Diskettes” to attendees of the World Health Organization international AIDS conference. These were infected with a Trojan which encrypted files on the computer and to regain access, the user had to send $189 to a P.O. box in Panama. Dr. Popp was caught but, after he started wearing a cardboard box on his head, was declared unfit to stand trial. (Sadly, a cardboard box hat is not a ransomware defense—more on that later).