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The Next Scourge

Despite the devastating statistics, we know that the coronavirus pandemic will subside at some point in the future. That’s the nature of vile germs. The next scourge, unfortunately, has no known cure or timeline.

The precursor of this scourge is identity theft from the sale of our social security numbers. In my mind, it's not "if" we are impacted by this, it's "when". For this reason, we are super careful about online banking and credit card transactions.

Just when we were starting to feel comfortable with our diligence, along comes the new variant - ransomware. This isn't new. The first ransomware attack happened in 1989 via floppy disk (remember those?!) with instructions to send money to a PO box. No kidding!

Recent ransomware strikes are infinitely more sophisticated. They come from within the "dark web", an internet that rivals the one we use. The dark web is a marketplace for everything you can't buy legally - weapons, drugs, people, hitmen and data which is the new gold. You need special browsers because Google won't get you there. This means you and I can't stumble into the dark web, phew!

Ransomware is an event caused by bad actors casting pointed attacks to hold computer systems hostage. If you don't pay up, they threaten to offload the data they've grabbed to parts of the dark web where buyers are eagerly waiting. In the meantime, the victim may bleed millions per day in revenue. So, payout happens very fast.

The perpetrators of ransomware are large hacker groups run like corporations. They leverage a vulnerability in the victim's network or rely on hapless users to click on phishing links to plant malware. Once in the system, this bad software proliferates to connected servers, and before you know it, the data is captured with encryption. Think of encryption as putting data in a box for which there is only one key and that magical key is in the custody of the criminals.

Ransom is what you pay to get the key.

You pay with cryptocurrency which is generally easy to track unless it goes through exchanges in countries that protect these criminals for political and financial motives. Then investigators quickly lose track. This explains why hackers are concentrated in certain locations.

In 2020, hackers made away with over 400M in ransom and there was a 40% rise in ransomware attacks. From cancer charities to large healthcare systems to petroleum pipeline in New Zealand to America, the hackers have struck across the globe. Just in the last two months we've seen Colonial Pipeline and Kaseya fall prey to ransomware attacks.

This doesn't just impact corporations. You and I are vulnerable too, including our laptops. I had an appointment for an annual checkup in May and the doctor's office canceled because a ransomware attack crippled the provider's system. It's always our data and wellbeing that are victimized.

The cottage industry of anti-hacking consultants is definitely growing but the hacker network is growing even faster. Worldwide expenditure on ransomware payout, forensic, and prevention has topped 20B USD. The pandemic will eventually go away but this scourge is only just beginning.

We can follow healthy habits to stay safe.

Most importantly, keep your OS and antivirus software up-to-date and limit online banking to a browser on which you do no other activities. You know those pesky messages you get about updating your computer? Yup, don't ignore them. Keep regular backups. Absolutely, do not open an email from a sender you don't recognize and definitely don't click on links or documents from anybody unless you are 100% sure - on your phone and your computer. If someone wants to share a document, tell them to put it on Google Drive or a similar shared location. Set your privacy settings on social media carefully and recognize that your data is definitionally vulnerable on free platforms.

And for the love of God, don't forward links and documents just because they are shocking or funny.

These habits are the equivalent of wearing a mask and sanitizing your hands. Protect yourself because nobody else will.

May the (good) force be with you!


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