In mid-April, an arsenal of powerful software tools apparently designed by the NSA to infect and control Windows computers was leaked by an entity known only as the “Shadow Brokers.” Not even a whole month later, the hypothetical threat that criminals would use the tools against the general public has become real, and tens of thousands of computers worldwide are now crippled by an unknown party demanding ransom.
The malware worm taking over the computers goes by the names “WannaCry” or “Wanna Decryptor.” It spreads from machine to machine silently and remains invisible to users until it unveils itself as so-called ransomware, telling users that all their files have been encrypted with a key known only to the attacker and that they will be locked out until they pay $300 to an anonymous party using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
At this point, one’s computer would be rendered useless for anything other than paying said ransom. The price rises to $600 after a few days; after seven days, if no ransom is paid, the hacker (or hackers) will make the data permanently inaccessible (WannaCry victims will have a handy countdown clock to see exactly how much time they have left).
Ransomware is not new; for victims, such an attack is normally a colossal headache. But today’s vicious outbreak has spread ransomware on a massive scale, hitting not just home computers but reportedly health care, communications infrastructure, logistics, and government entities.