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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends: Ransom Here, Ransomware, Ransom Everywhere!

Anyone patiently awaiting the next season of Mr. Robot (gestures wildly at self) should have found the news as entertainment enough this month, as the world’s technological infrastructure was hacked as part of the Wannacry attack. First detected on Friday, May 12, the attack sent governments scrambling to recover and patch their outdated software systems over the days that followed. Man, did I pick a good time to buy a MacBook.

Wannacry is a form of ransomware, a hot new type of malware that infects your computer and encrypts all of your files, making them inaccessible until a ransom is paid to the hacker to unlock them. Exploiting a flaw in an older version of Windows, the malware can get into your computer through something as simple as clicking a infected PDF or website.

The ransom is paid through Bitcoin and apparently starts at around US$300 (NZ$437), rising up to US$600 (NZ$875) if the ransom isn’t paid within a time limit, after which the files are destroyed. Generally, it’s not known whether the hacker gives you the decryption key to unlock your files upon payment, or even whether cash is the only thing demanded. Which raises the question: would you send nudes to get your Word files back? Send mammaries for your computer memory? Strip to decrypt? (Alright, I’ll stop).

Among the places hit were Britain’s National Health Service, Germany’s national railway system, and several Chinese universities, leaving students unable to access their dissertations or theses. Many government systems are being patched as a precaution, as a lot of them still operate on older software like 2000–2003 edition Windows, or don’t use a diversity of operating systems. Fortunately, the malware doesn’t affect anything running on Mac, Linux, or Windows 10, and getting your computer protected is as simple as keeping your software and internet security up to date.

However, that doesn’t mean another attack won’t find and exploit a flaw in that security soon enough. Wannacry spread primarily because people didn’t download the newest patch for the older versions of Windows, and as a result it exploited a flaw in its server message block protocol. This is known as zero-day vulnerability, where hackers exploit a flaw that hasn’t even been publicly recognised in the software.

Fortunately, an anonymous 22-year old researcher (“Malwaretech” to the media) managed to limit Wannacry’s further infection by finding its flaw in turn. Noticing an obscure web address in Wannacry’s code, they registered the domain name of the address and redirected all its traffic to one server at their security company, creating a “sinkhole” to catch all the malware. It only cost him $10.69 (nice), but saved people hundreds of dollars. The media loves a hero, and while Malwaretech’s move spared us a lot of grief, it also begs acknowledging all the IT specialists who sacrificed their weekends to patch software and shut down servers to prevent Wannacry’s spread. We salute your service, code monkeys.

For now, Wannacry has pretty much been averted. The worst that’s come of it are scammers making money off fake Wannacry protection for Android devices — a system that Wannacry doesn’t even infect. Although, technically, you’re still protected regardless of whether you download it or not. It’s like that joke about the man spreading salt around the city to ward away tigers. “But there are no tigers in London!” “Exactly!”

Just shows how much we rely on an infrastructure most of us don’t understand, but a minority of people do. So buy a geek a coffee today, they’ve earned one and you could learn a thing or two.

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