How Ransomware Conquered the World
PC Magazine|May 2016

Ransomware can hit anyone, but hackers are increasingly targeting people who are more willing to pay up. 

Brian Heater

It’s been a strange few years for Alina Simone. In 2011, she released her fourth full-length record, Make Your Own Danger, to critical acclaim, and followed it with a book of essays and her debut novel (You Must Go and Win), all while maintaining a journalism career and raising a young daughter. But it’s likely a 2015 opinion piece for the New York Times that garnered the most recognition for the Brooklyn-based artist. “My gravestone will say, ‘Her mom got hacked,’” she says with a laugh.

Published in January of that year, “How My Mom Got Hacked” earned Simone a deluge of media appearances, from prime-time news programs to an episode of the popular public radio program Radiolab. The story details her mother Inna’s struggles with a mysterious form of malware and the strange and surprisingly cloak-and-dagger story that unfolded in its wake.

“My mom called me one night, and she was ranting about needing to pay a ransom,” she tells PC Magazine. “I had my laptop open but was also watching TV and half listening. I thought it was a typical mom rant about her hardware crashing [and] having to pay the repair people $500 because her computer crashed. I thought she was talking in air quotes. She kept saying, ‘No, Alina, listen. I mean ransom.’”

By the time Simone got the call, there was less than a day left before the deadline. Her mother had attempted to withdraw the full amount for the ransom, but a combination of the Thanksgiving holiday, the long weekend, a snowstorm, and the highly volatile value of Bitcoin had caused her payment to fall $25 short. A failure to pay would cause the $500 ransom to double.

Simone dropped everything the following morning and made a beeline to the nearest bitcoin ATM. “I had a full-time job and a toddler at home,” she explains. “I had a busy morning, but I canceled everything and got a sitter. I ran over to Greenpoint, where this bitcoin ATM was located in a shared workspace building. The ATM didn’t work and it gave me the spinny wheel. We were freaked out by the virus, but Bitcoin gave it this extra level of terror. It just freezes your brain—it’s just another thing to figure out.”

The story has a happy ending—at least as far as those things go. “She didn’t make the deadline, and they were going to charge her double the ransom, [but] she pleaded with them and they let her go,” Simone says. Mom got her files, the hackers got their money, and everyone who read the story in the New York Times learned about the phenomenon of ransomware, a strange, steadily growing form of malware that all but holds a user’s computer files at electronic gunpoint.

Simone’s mother is not the only victim, of course. In a piece published late last year in Infosecurity Magazine, G Data Software Security Evangelist Andrew Hayter posited that 2016 will be “the year of ransomware,” a sentiment that’s seemingly been confirmed by similarly titled pieces subsequently published in big media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and security firms like Symantec.

The year has already been dotted with increasingly high-profile examples, including, most notably, the case of Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, a 434-bed hospital in Los Angeles whose network effectively ground to a halt in early February when hackers breached the system. After relying on pen-and-paper records briefly, the hospital paid the 40-bitcoin ($17,000) ransom to regain control of its network.

More recently, the Columbia, Maryland–based MedStar Health and Methodist Hospital in Henderson, Kentucky, were hit with similar attacks, and the targeting of such larger institutions appears to be part of a growing movement.

“We’re absolutely seeing that trend,” explains Grayson Milbourne, Security Intelligence Director for Internet security firm Webroot. “It’s true that there’s an increase in focus on attacking corporate entities.

“The value of my personal files and pictures caps off somewhere,” he continues. “But [if] I encrypt the backend of your corporate system and prevent you from processing payments, that has a tremendous value. And if the hacker can recognize the value of what he has, the ransom can be more dynamically set based on the content of the data.”

Hayter concurs, but notes that, although hackers have been planning large-scale attacks for some time, “public companies never could admit that they had malware because it would hurt their stock. They kept security quiet. I think they’ve been hit all along, but they just don’t talk about it.”

What does seem certain is that high-profile payments like the one issued by Hollywood Presbyterian add fuel to the fire.

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