Last May, we watched in bewilderment as our already crippled NHS was dealt yet another blow — an unprecedented cyber attack was causing chaos and disruption in one in five NHS trusts across England, and we had barely heard the half of it. As the story continued to unfold, newscasters relayed that the attack had been a global phenomenon, quickly spreading to 150 countries and infecting over 230,000 computers.
The guilty party was a malicious program known as WannaCry, ransomware designed specifically to exploit an old Windows vulnerability in order to lock systems, encrypt files and demand $300 (£232) in exchange for a decryption key. While many were warned not to pay the ransom, as there was no guarantee of ever recovering one’s data, the cybercrooks reportedly earned £55,000 in more than 260 Bitcoin transactions.
With such alarming figures, it is not difficult to see why so many hackers have turned to ransomware as a convenient and lucrative form of criminal behaviour. Ironically, however, standard security procedures are also responsible for the increasing danger. Because IT specialists keep open databases listing all known recent threats, cybercriminals are able to use this information to target system weaknesses. To make matters worse, most companies fail to install security patches as soon as they become available, leaving the door wide open for further attacks.