When a police officer in Durham, N.H., opened an innocuous looking email last spring, the small New England department became victims of a totally new kind of crime – one that it had no idea how to solve.
Criminal hackers had seized the department’s entire network of 28 computers, locking police out of the system that keeps arrest records, outstanding warrants, and incident reports for 24 hours. The culprit: ransomware, a form of malicious software that encrypts a victim’s computer files until they pay a fee via the virtual currency bitcoin.
Fortunately, Durham Police Chief Dave Kurz and his team had a backup server in place, allowing information technology teams to quickly restore access to the locked files. That’s not always the case, as ransomware victims risk losing their files for good if they don’t meet hackers’ demands.
“We would have had to explored paying a ransom,” Chief Kurz says. “It would have been a nightmare.”
To date, ransomware attackers have operated largely without fear of being caught, thanks to their use of encryption and the decentralized cryptocurrency bitcoin, which enables users to mask their identity during transactions.