What is ransomware?
One of the fastest-growing criminal hazards to businesses in the 21st century is malware and ransomware, in particular, is a significant threat to both private companies and public institutions.
The 2017 outbreak of the WannaCry ransomware affected over 200,000 computers in over 150 countries and cost around $8 billion in damages.
However, despite solutions to WannaCry being put in place, the threat has only escalated since then. The NotPetya and Bad Rabbit ransomware variants have disrupted hundreds of thousands of systems across the globe, from manufacturing plants to hospitals.
In this article, we’ll be looking at what ransomware is, how it works, and what its impact has been.
What Is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a specific type of malicious software or malware. Once installed on a computer, ransomware deliberately encrypts certain vital files, locking access to important information or preventing the computer from being used at all.
The user will then receive a prompt demanding that they make a payment in order to receive the decryption key that will allow them to access their files. The payment is often made in an untraceable cryptocurrency like bitcoin.
The level of encryption used on modern versions of ransomware is often advanced enough that paying the ransom and getting the decryption key is often the only way to get access to the infected system.
Who Does Ransomware Target?
The criminals behind most ransomware attacks target those who are most likely to pay them. This can include public services, like hospitals, where an inability to access their computers puts their patients a risk.
Erie County Medical Center in New York lost access to 6000 computers, requiring six weeks of manual operations and a recovery process that ultimately cost $10 million.
The global WannaCry outbreak of 2017 brought hundreds of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) facilities to a standstill for several days, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of operations and appointments and the frantic relocation of emergency patients from stricken emergency centers.
Manufacturing plants are also commonly targeted. At France’s Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan, so many computers were brought down by the WannaCry ransomware epidemic that both were forced to idle some of their plants in Europe. Danish transportation and logistics giant Maersk suffered $300M of business interruption losses due to a ransomware attack.
The total cost of ransomware attacks is expected to hit $11.5 billion by 2025.
How Can I Protect Myself Against Ransomware?
While the threat of ransomware is both pervasive and evolving, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself against it:
- Always keep your operating system fully up to date. Out of date operating systems leave vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malware.
- Be wary of emails from seemingly trustworthy sources that ask you to download a file.
- Email phishing scams are the most common way for hackers to distribute malware.
- Install an antivirus and antimalware software such as Malwarebytes and scan your computer regularly.
- Always back up your vital files. If ransomware does infect your computer, even if you are able to remove it, it will have already encrypted your files and you will not be able to access them without the decryption key. Making sure your files are regularly backed up is the best way to avoid losing your data.
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Lisa Myers, J.D., L.L.M.
Legal Studies Department Director
J.D. L.L.M. Campbell University