The Computer Virus That Haunted Early AIDS Researchers – The Atlantic
Now, nearly 30 years later, ransomware generally falls into two camps—and both draw on elements of Popp’s early virus.
The first type of modern ransomware, known as scareware, relies on computer users’ unfamiliarity with the inner workings of important software—and their profound fear of breaking their machines. Bandying about phrases like “SYSTEM WARNING” and “CRITICAL ERROR,” this type of malware tries to convince the user that something is horribly, terribly, wrong with their computer with insistent alerts and frightening splash screens, and then promises to sell just the tool to fix the problem for a bargain: a sum usually under 100 dollars. Once the unsuspecting user pays up, the alerts go away. (In one version, the scareware imitates the FBI, demanding a fine for the fictitious child pornography found on your laptop.)
A good understanding of how operating systems work, or what computer problems usually look like, can help users avoid falling into a scareware trap. But the second, more complex branch of ransomware is far more insidious, and can stump even the most capable victims.
Known as crypto ransomware or cryptoware, this newer breed of virus takes Popp’s idea—using encryption to render files inaccessible without a specific cryptographic key—and infuses it with state-of-the-art cryptography. Modern cryptoware attacks can encrypt entire file systems with such sophistication that even the FBI has been repeatedly unable to unscramble the files. And unlike the tools that could reverse the effects of Popp’s “AIDS virus,” nothing short of the attacker’s private key—available for purchase, of course, for anywhere between a hundred and thousands of dollars—will save an infected computer or server.
CryptoLocker began the wave of largely unbreakable cryptoware in 2013. Today, Palo Alto Networks tracks 30 different types of cryptoware, which it says “all follow very similar playbooks” to the one CryptoLocker wrote. These viruses are prolific, and they don’t differentiate between victims: They’ve taken down home PCs, school computers, and police-department servers, let alone the likes of MedStar.
And soon, their repertoire may expand beyond computers and servers. As I’ve written before, hackers are experimenting with ransomware tailored to smartphones, smartwatches, and even Internet-connected TVs. As household appliances and security systems begin talking to one another on the Internet as well, it may not be long before they start getting ransomed, too. And just as attackers asked for higher ransoms from desperate hospitals, a hacker who compromises a refrigerator or front-door lock may be able to ask for far more than a few hundred dollars to relinquish control.
And unlike the virus made by Popp, an evolutionary biologist moonlighting as an enterprising hacker, modern ransomware is produced by hackers who have learned from decades of virus development and who can lean on industry-standard cryptography to create truly frightening viruses.