Cyber attack on LA hospital offers a scary lesson to computer users

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AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) – A cyber security specialist at the University at Buffalo warns the attack on a Los Angeles hospital, this week, raises a lot of questions about Internet security. The hospital had to hand over almost $17,000 after hackers took the computer network hostage.

The weapon used in the attack was a frightening type of malicious code called ransomware–that can infect an entire computer network, and anything connected to it. While it is a form of extortion, many experts say when a hacker hijacks your computer with ransomware, you don’t have much choice other than to pay up.

Ransomware disabled the entire computer network of Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for days. Without use of their computers, staff were forced to communicate by pen and paper, and fax machines.

The hospital eventually relented and paid the hackers $17,000, but the payment was parlayed in Bitcoin–a virtual currency that is almost impossible to trace.

Associate Professor Arun Vishwanath for UB’s Department of Communication explained ransomware encrypts all of the files on your computer, and only the person who creates the software can unlock it.

“So you won’t be able to read anything–everything is now looking basically garbled.”

In order to unlock the encryption Vishwanath said, the hacker has to send a “key”, and if the decoder key isn’t sent, all the encrypted data is lost permanently.

“In order for you to get back access–either to your files or even to your folders at times–it could just lock your computer, so you can’t have access to any of things until that person sends the un-encryption code back to open it up.”

About the only way of fighting ransomware, Prof. Vishwanath said, is prevention: be especially diligent with your email and software updates.

If you are the target of a ransomware attack, Vishwanath said, log off of your intranet immediately to prevent the malware’s spread.

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