So, what is ransomware and is it dangerous?

By Nancy Wilkerson

For those of us of a certain age or those who are computer illiterates, the majority of us hardly understand, nor want to understand, this high-tech world we live in. It touches almost every facet of our lives, and we need to know how dangerous “ransomware attacks” are that we’ve been hearing and reading about in the news in the last year or so.

Recent attacks by these extortionist hackers through the Internet on the Colonial Pipeline, on a large meat-packing company, hits on 100 federal, state and municipal agencies, hundreds of healthcare centers, nearly 2,000 educational institutions, and thousands of businesses should get our attention. Dollar losses are in the tens of billions. And now, world leaders are beginning to give this world-wide problem close attention. (Colonial Pipeline paid $4.4 million ransom to the gang.)

You may ask, “What is ransomware”? It scrambles the target organization’s data with encryption. The hacker/criminals leave instructions on infected computers for ransom payments. Once paid, they provide decryption keys for unlocking those files. If the target company doesn’t agree to pay the ransom, it threatens to post sensitive files publicly. Refusing to pay can result in costs far greater than the ransoms they might have negotiated.

It has been reported that these cyber criminals are mostly Russian-speaking and operate out of Russia and its allied countries. It is believed these criminals continue to grow in sophistication and skill.

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed an executive order recently meant to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity defenses, mostly in response to Russia’s hacking of federal agencies and interference in U.S. politics. It will take the concerted diplomatic, legal and law enforcement cooperation with key allies. Ransomware developers should be named and their regimes be punished with sanctions.

Biden’s executive order calls for mandatory disclosure of ransom payments and provide financial assistance to victims of ransomware. It also wants stricter regulation of cryptocurrency markets to make it move difficult for criminals to launder ransomware proceeds. The order also calls for blocking or limiting online criminal activity, including botnets, the networks of hijacked zombie computers that ransomware criminals use to saw infections.

(A portion of this article’s information was from AP Columnist Frank Bajak’s recent column.)

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