Ransomware virus exposes price of progress

Symbolism of latest attack on the 50th anniversary of the ATM is unmistakable

 

On June 27th, 1967, the world’s first ATM was unveiled at a Barclays branch at Enfield, north of London. Opened with a flurry of publicity, it was one of the earliest public demonstrations of how computer technology would transform our everyday lives.

On Tuesday, 50 years to the day later, ATMs in Kiev began to malfunction as a ransomware virus began to affect computer networks across Ukraine, crippling banks, the post office and government ministries. The virus was initially identified as a variant of ransomware called Petya, though researchers at Kaspersky Lab said it was an entirely new ransomware and dubbed it ExPetr or NotPetya.

It quickly spread to thousands of computers in dozens of countries, affecting the operations of multiple large companies, including pharmaceutical giant MSD/Merck here in Ireland, as well as food multinational Mondelez. Similar to the WannaCry virus that caused global disruption in May, NotPetya encrypts hard drives and demands users make a payment of $300 via digital currency Bitcoin to decrypt the data. But the payment process was clumsily executed, raising only $10,000 and suggesting this attack was not conducted purely for financial gain. The fact that Ukraine was at its epicentre, a day before it celebrated its independent constitution, prompted speculation that the culprits were Russian hackers.

To what degree NotPetya is state-sponsored remains to be determined, but it would not be without precedent, given the 2007 digital assault on Estonia and a December 2015 attack on Ukraine’s power grid.

The timing of the latest cyberattack on the 50th anniversary of the ATM was undoubtedly a coincidence, but the symbolism is unmistakable. In half a century, we have come to rely on computer networks of extraordinary complexity, not just for accessing cash, but in every facet of our lives. And with that reliance comes extraordinary vulnerability. Our success at protecting ourselves from that vulnerability will determine the shape of technological progress over the next 50 years.

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