Monday 27 July 2015

A recent study found that ransomware - sophisticated malware that encrypts files and releases them only on payment - has rocketed in popularity thanks to bitcoin.

The first real bitcoin economy was the Silk Road, which allowed people to buy drugs and other illegal goods from the comfort of their own laptops, thanks to the pseudonymous nature of the currency (remember: bitcoin is not anonymous, though used carefully, it can be hard to trace; also, drugs are bad, hmmmkay?).

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Now, cybercrime security Trustwave say that the ransomware sector has skyrocketed thanks to the same properties.

Keyboard lock

It typically costs between $200 and $10,000 to get your files decrypted, so you might want to keep backups

Ransomware is a twist on the usual issue of viruses, trojans, worms and all the other electronic creatures that can colonise your computer from their home on the internet. Once downloaded, ransomware typically encrypts key files and requires you to pay a fee to have them returned to you in one piece. Fail to pay and your computer can be turned into an expensive paperweight. A whole economy has grown up around ransomware, with merchants selling the required software on the darknet, and forums and even call centres - also run by the criminals - dedicated to helping those who want to cough up to retrieve their precious data. For an initial outlay of less than $6,000, criminals are said to be reaping rewards of over $90,000 per month.

The facilitating factor in all this? Of course, it’s bitcoin. Not only is the virtual currency hard to trace, but transactions are irreversible, making it a lot safer for the criminals than asking for cash via PayPal or credit card. ‘That’s what really enabled the ransomware problem to explode,’ comments Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure. ‘Once the criminals were able to collect their ransom without getting caught, nothing was stopping them.’

To avoid being caught out by a ransomware attack, you should:

  • Keep software up to date
  • Keep backups of critical files
  • Run a good malware detector
  • Maintain safe browsing habits - being particularly careful of opening message attachments and downloading .exe files.

Bitcoin isn’t just the means of many malware attacks, though - it’s the target. Research has found that around a fifth of malware attacks now target virtual currency. These include software that aims to steal private keys and apps which install miners on victims’ computers (and even smartphones), draining their processing power and battery life for the sake of a few satoshis.

All of this is, unfortunately, just part of the teething troubles of the growing crypto economy. We’re moving out of the Wild West phase, slowly. But it’s the pattern with new tech that it’s often used first for illicit or illegal purposes. If someone can turn a profit, they will.

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