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Ransomware VS Your Thesis Files

Santiago Zuluaga
Santiago Zuluaga is Colombian born, Aruban raised Economics student. Santiago is an active member of the Asset Economics blog committee and a student ambassador at Tilburg University. He has various interests in the topics of Globalization, technological advancement and Economics.

Nowadays, computers and software have become an essential part of our lives. We use them for personal purposes, for work, study and in every aspect of our public and private lives. This importance has created markets of all sorts, including black markets for harmful software aimed at gaining money at the expense of other people.

You might or might not have heard of it but last week we saw this problem materialize in a magnitude never seen before. Some IT-analysts called it “the largest coordinated cyber-attack” ever in history. Around 150 countries became targets of this wave of attacks and more than 200.000 people were affected. The biggest problem was that it did not only affect individuals but also large companies such as FedEx in the United States, the French car maker Renault which had to halt production after it was attacked, train information services in Germany and different national health service groups in the United Kingdom just to name a few. A massive international effort was directly put in place in order to contain the attack and even some free-lancer hackers joined the cause in order to try to stop this wave of attacks. Sadly, for many people and companies, the damage was already done and there was not much they could do about it.

An important question to ask now is: What are these attacks?  And what can we do to protect our selves?

In very simple words, these are what are known as “ransomware” which are basically malwares that many times are attached to some kind of file in emails or are automatically downloaded when a person clicks on an infected link. Once such malware is downloaded into a computer, it essentially locks down the computer taking it and all its files hostage against a sum of money. This sum of money (usually around $300) then is transferred through some virtual currency system such as Bitcoin which is untraceable. Unfortunately for most victims, these malware use advanced encryption codes that makes it almost impossible to break them and thus has so far forced many people to actually pay the sum of money required. Because people are faced between losing all their files and paying a mere $300 dollars to become free, many victims choose for the latter. The FBI reported in 2016 that transfers related to ransom software amounted around $1 Billion, which makes this market very lucrative for skilled hackers wanting to gain money at the expense of other people.

This might seem like a very grim article but it is all not bad news. There exist many ways in order to protect oneself against these type of attacks and I will list some of them.

First and most important is to never open emails or links from unreliable sources. This means that one has to pay double attention and actually check the source of emails that one receives. This is also the case with emails that look totally harmless. A tactic that is used by these individuals trying to do harm is to disguise the harmful emails as normal everyday-correspondence such as a KPN invoice scam (a Dutch communication provider). While these emails might look totally legit, the email source could tell very easily if it is a case of phishing mail or if it is from a real company.
Second and also very important is to always keep your computer, web browser and antivirus up to date. Many malware  exploit weaknesses of outdated software and thus not updating regularly makes you a perfect target.
Third is to always hold backups of your files. Even if it ever happens that you become a victim of such an attack, if you have backups, you can wipe out the virus and just have your files back from your backups.

It is scary that even at the comfort of your desk-chair, the world can still be quite a dangerous place. However, it is nothing one cannot face with just being a bit more careful and attentive. So to end this article, save surfing and keep your thesis away from the hackers!

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