Is 2016 the year of online extortion?

Hackers hold data for ransom
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Story highlights

  • Arun Vishwanath: Cybersecurity experts believe 2016 could be "Year of Online Extortion"
  • Thanks to the Internet, malware for hire is available to virtually anyone, anywhere with criminal intent, he says

Arun Vishwanath is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)This week, a hospital in western Kentucky was the latest organization to fall victim to a "ransomware" attack -- a class of malware that encrypts all the files on a computer, only releasing them when a ransom is paid to the hacker holding the encryption key.

In this case, the hospital did not pay up. However, other hospitals, law firms, small businesses and everyday citizens have already paid anywhere from $200 to $10,000 in ransoms. Indeed, based on complaints received between April 2014 and June 2015, the FBI estimated that losses for victims from just one of these malware strains were close to $18 million.
Arun Vishwanath
Sadly, this year could well be worse.
Ransomware has existed for some time, the earliest dating back to the late 1980s. Back then, most was developed by enthusiasts -- individuals testing out their skills. In contrast, today's ransomware is often developed by global software teams that are constantly updating their codes to evade anti-virus software and selling them as off-the-shelf products.
Already, newer strains appear capable of infecting mobile devices, of encrypting files stored on cloud servers through mapped, virtual drives on computers, and of transitioning to the "Internet of Things" -- infecting gadgets like watches and smart TVs that are going online. In the near future, the likelihood of an attack locking us out of our car, or worse yet in it, while we drive, demanding an immediate ransom, is becoming increasingly possible.
Thanks to the Internet, this malware-for-hire is available to virtually anyone, anywhere with criminal intent. Making things easier for hackers is the availability of Bitcoins, the online currency that makes monetary transactions untraceable. And making things even easier for them is our inability to stop spear phishing -- those innocuous looking emails whose attachments and hyperlinks conceal the malware.
All this makes anyone with minimal programming skills and a free email account capable of inflicting significant damage, and with everyone from presidents to pensioners using emails today, the virtual pool of potential victims is limitless. No surprise then that cybersecurity experts believe that 2016 could well be the "Year of Online Extortion."
But we can stop these insidious attacks, if everyone -- individuals, organizations and policy makers -- works towards a solution.
First, everyone must be taught to spot, sequester, and deal with spear phishing emails. This requires cybersecurity education that is free and widely available, which is presently not the case. While different training programs exist, most cater to large organizations, and are outside the reach of households, senior citizens and small businesses, who remain vulnerable.
What we also need is training that helps people develop better "cyber hygiene." This includes teaching people to frequently update anti-virus software, appropriately program firewalls, and routinely back up their computers on discs that are then disconnected from the network. In addition, people should be taught how to deal with a ransomware attack and stop its spread by quickly removing connected drives and disconnecting from the Internet.
Second, organizations must do more to protect computer networks and employees. Many organizations continue to run legacy software, often on unsupported operating systems that are less secure and far easier for hackers to infiltrate. Nowhere is this problem more pressing than in small businesses, health care facilities, and state and federal government institutions, which is why they are the sought-after targets of ransomware.
Besides updating systems, organizations need to overhaul the system of awarding network privileges to employees. The present system is mostly binary, giving access to employees based on their function or status in the organization. Instead, what we need is a dynamic network-access system that takes into account the employees' cyberrisk behaviors, meaning only employees who demonstrate good cyber hygiene are rewarded with access to various servers, networks, and programs through their devices.
Finally, policy makers must work to create a cyber crime reporting and remediation system. Most local law enforcement today is ill-equipped to handle ransomware requests, and harried victims usually have limited time to comply with a hacker's demand. Many, therefore, turn to their family and friends, who themselves have limited expertise. Worse yet, some have no choice but to turn to the hacker, who in many cases provides a chat window to guide the victim through the "remediation" process.
What we urgently need is a reporting portal that is locally available and staffed by cybersecurity professionals, so people can quickly report a breach and get immediate support. Such a system currently exists, in the form of the existing 311 system for reporting nonemergency municipal service issues. It's a system that has already been adopted by many cities in the nation, and allows for reporting via email, telephone, and smartphone apps. Strengthening this system by providing it the necessary resources to hire and train cyber security professionals, could go a long way towards stopping ransomware attacks that are now making their way past Main Street to everyone's homes.
Perhaps the best way to look at the problem is this: How safe would we feel in a city where people are routinely being held hostage? Well, cyberspace is our space. And we have to make it safe.