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May 14, 2017
Hugh Dellar

Word of the day: ransom

Over the last few days, the news here in the UK has been dominated by the hackers currently holding the country to ransom! It all began last Friday afternoon, when computers in several hospitals around the country suddenly stopped working normally and instead started showing a pop-up message which demanded a $300 (£233) ransom per machine to be paid to a Bitcoin wallet address. Bitcoin, in case you’ve not heard of it, is a virtual currency created to allow online transactions to be made without any middle men and without the need to give your real name, making it very popular with criminals using the dark web. The message not only demanded money, but made it clear that all the files on affected computers had been encrypted – changed into code – and could no longer be accessed. It was now impossible to recover  lost files and there was a warning that unless payment was made within three days, the price would double – and if it wasn’t paid within a week, all files would be permanently deleted.

Obviously, the attack has caused chaos across the whole of the NHS (the National Health Service), as patients were turned away, emergency operations were transferred to hospitals not affected by the hacking and fears grew that private information in the files was now in the hands of criminals. To top it all, it now seems that one reason why the NHS was so vulnerable to an attack like this is that recent government cuts had meant that security updates were not purchased!

As the weekend went on, it became clear that this was not only an attack on the NHS. Thousands and thousands of businesses around the world have been similarly hit. Put simply, this is the biggest act of cyber crime we’ve ever witnessed, and a sobering reminder of quite how dependent on the Internet our modern world has become.

The special kind of software that was used in this attack is called ransomware. It’s usually sent via an email that unsuspecting victims open, thus allowing the malware into their computers, where it quickly encrypts files and then demands a ransom. The ransom is the amount of money that needs to be paid before criminals release whatever it is they have taken. The word used to be mainly associated with kidnapping cases, where a gang would kidnap the children of wealthy people – they’d illegally take them away somewhere and hold them prisoner, in order to make their family (or government, in some cases) pay them money. Sometimes a ransom note would be sent – maybe even containing a video of the kidnapped person pleading for their lifeIn some instances, pet dogs have even been kidnapped and held for ransom! As criminals have got smarter and more and more crime has moved online, nowadays it’s more commonly websites that are hacked and held for ransom.

When footballers demand huge wage increases if they are to stay at a club, the manager may well complain to the media that the club wont be held to ransom – and may remind the greedy star that no player’s bigger than the club. It all seems to be part and parcel of the way new contracts are negotiated these days!

Just in case any of you out there are thinking that demanding ransoms sounds like money for old rope, it’s worth bearing in mind the fact that so far the hackers behind the recent attacks have only been paid around £20,000 – but now have security forces from countless countries looking for them! Sometimes crime really doesn’t pay!

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  • Has the recent wave of cyber attacks hit your country? How?
  • Have you heard any other stories about websites or people or animals being held for ransom?
  • What other kinds of cyber crime have you heard about?
  • How much effort do you put into protecting your own online data and your computer?
  • Can you think of any jobs that you think are money for old rope?

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