The Era of Chaos-Inducing Ransomware Is Here

June 29, 2017

The ‘90s cyberpunk thriller Hackers is used too often to illustrate the fearful future of cyber security, but it’s popular for a reason. The film’s seemingly fictional scenarios keep coming true. Take this week’s global ransomware attack, for instance. It’s a plot twist that would make Matthew Lillard leer at the camera and cackle.

On Tuesday morning, a message from unknown hackers appeared on thousands of computers—kind of like that Matthew Lillard scene at the end of Hackers. The red screen was a result of ransomware, a malware that encrypts an infected computer’s files and demands payment in exchange for decrypting them.

Ransomware attacks are on the rise and criminals are raking in the bitcoin, but some experts believe the goal of Tuesday’s ransomware attack went beyond collecting cryptocurrency. They say the hackers wanted to disrupt information technology not only in Ukraine, where the attack started, but also across the world. The hackers wanted to pour a bit of chaos into the system.

This is the batshit-crazy future of cyber attacks. As more sophisticated weapons make it out into the wild, it’s becoming easier and easier for blackhats to deploy malware and shut down computers all over the globe in exchange for a few bitcoins. But by proxy, it’s also easier for hackers to use the same techniques to cause pure chaos, whether they get paid for it or not.

Last month, for instance, WannaCry ransomware infections swept through computers in over 150 countries. The malware propagated via EternalBlue, a stolen and leaked NSA exploit, and it encrypted the hard drives tens of thousands of computers in Russia, the UK, and elsewhere. WannaCry asked the computer owners for the equivalent of $300 in bitcoin to unlock their machines. Fortunately, security researcher Marcus Hutchins quickly identified a kill switch, which allowed security experts to slow its spread. Some think this might have been a happy accident, but it still reigned in the havoc unleashed by the attack. Nevertheless, the hackers reportedly made over $50,000 in three days.

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