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Ransomware: Expect it to get worse. Much worse.

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It is mind-boggling that, despite the world being warned, the past week’s ransomware attack almost took down a country’s healthcare system. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK reports.

If the world didn’t know what ransomware was before, the incessant global headlines of the past week have provided an instant education.

The healthcare system in the United Kingdom was almost brought down by the WannaCry virus, which locks and encrypts computer files, rendering entire networks useless until a ransom is paid. The National Health Service had staff working overtime, not on patient care, but on using paper systems to manage patient information.

IT security company Kaspersky Lab defines ransomware as “a type of malware that severely restricts access to a computer, device or file until a ransom is paid by the user”. It can be installed through deceptive links in an email message, instant message or website, and can encrypt important files with a password.

Kaspersky Lab has detected at least 45 000 WannaCry (also known as WannaCrypt) infection attempts in 74 countries. While most have been in Russia, an animated map of infections published online by the New York Times (See http://bit.ly/wannaRSA) shows that targets were hit in every South African city.

Kaspersky explains that the ransomware infects victims by exploiting a Microsoft Windows vulnerability described and fixed in a Microsoft Security Bulletin in March 2017. The exploit is called Eternal Blue, and was stolen from the American National Security Agency (NSA) by a hacking gang going by the name of Shadowbrokers.

“Once inside the system, the attackers install a rootkit, which enables them to download the software to encrypt the data. The malware encrypts the files. A request for $600 in Bitcoin is displayed along with the wallet – and the ransom demand increases over time.”

Kaspersky is hoping to develop a decryption tool similar to those created for previous ransomware attacks, and available at noransom.kaspersky.com.

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It should not have come to this, however. When the Windows vulnerability was revealed two months ago, it came with warnings that ransomware attacks and other cyber exploits were certain to follow. All Windows users were advised to update their software immediately, and IT administrators were advised to download and install the latest security patches. Users of the latest Microsoft operating system, Windows 10, were safe, as it did not contain the vulnerability.

Two months later, hospitals in the UK and elsewhere, along with businesses, public transport systems and even police stations globally, found themselves in crisis mode as their systems were brought down. By a known and well-publicised vulnerability.

It’s little wonder that scorn has been poured on UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s claim that there were “good preparations in place by the NHS to make sure they were ready for this sort of attack”. Guardian technology columnist Charles Arthur wrote that underfunding of the NHS “made the events of the past few days a disaster waiting to happen”.

In truth, it’s an ongoing disaster. As Arthur reports, between mid-2015 and the end of 2016, 88 of the UK’s 260 NHS trusts had been hit by ransomware.

In South Africa, it’s also an ongoing threat. Numerous individuals – particularly older users – have fallen for scammers supposedly phoning from Microsoft to say they have detected  a virus on the user’s computer.

For some reason, the most suspicious of old-timers become like gullible children when receiving a call about their computers from a stranger. It does not cross their minds for a moment that the giant Microsoft is not about to phone an individual user about an issue on their system.

They are then persuaded to open a specific web address, download a piece of software and open it. Which instantly locks down their computer, and encrypts all files. They are told that, if they don’t pay a specific ransom amount by a given date, all the contents of their computer will be deleted.

Unfortunately, there is no Windows patch for gullibility. However, the same thing can happen via any number of exploits. In most cases, it is a result if clicking on a link or attachment in an email from a stranger.

The methods are going to keep evolving, and the trickery will keep getting more sophisticated.

“People in ransomware are thinking like business people,” said Ton Maas, digital coordinator of the Dutch National Police, during Kaspersky Lab’s annual Cyber Security Weekend in Malta last year. In 2015, he personally arrested two young ransomware creators, brothers who were conducting the business in their parents’ home.

“In this case, they were both the coders and the distributors,” said Maas. “Usually, you start with the coder, who offers code to distributors, who then target end-users. You even get code specifically written for the distributor, on request.

“The distributors buy the codes and earn their own money, but sometimes have to pay a percentage back to the coder. It is also possible to have a service contract, paying a fixed amount a month, so if you have problems and want to change something in the code, the coder will do it for you. You can call this ransomware-as-a-service.”

Kasperksy Lab’s 2016 Corporate IT security Risks Survey, presented at the Malta event, revealed that 20 per cent of businesses across the world experienced a ransomware attack in the previous 12 months. In South Africa, 19 per cent of businesses had come under attack.

The Lab helped the Dutch police track down the hackers responsible for a ransomware program called CoinVault, which added a new element: if victims did not pay immediately, the ransom “fee” steadily increased. That exact approach has now been taken by the WannaCry creator.

For now, WannaCry appears to be contained, but that is merely a respite in an escalating crisis. Expect worse. Far worse.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Android Go puts reliable smartphones in budget pockets

Nokia, Vodacom and Huawei have all launched entry-level smartphones running the Android Go edition, and all deliver a smooth experience, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Three new and notable Android Go smartphones have recently hit the market, namely the Nokia 1, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 and the Huawei Y3 (2018). These phones run one of the most basic versions of Android while still delivering a fairly smooth user experience.

Historically, consumers purchasing smartphones in the budget bracket would have a hit-and-miss experience with processing speed, smoothness of user interface, and app stability. The Google-supported Android Go edition operating system optimises the user experience by stripping out non-important visual effects to speed up the phone. Thish allows for more memory to be used by apps. 

Google also ensures that all smartphones running Android Go will receive feature and security updates as they are released by Google. This is a major selling point for these smartphones, as users of this smartphone will always be running the latest software, with virtually no manufacturer bloatware.

Vodafone Smart Kicka 4

At the lowest entry-level, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performs well as a communicator for emails and WhatsApp messages. The 4” screen represents a step up for entry-level Android phones, which were previously standardised at 3.5”.

The display is bright and very responsive, while the limited screen real estate leaves the navigation keys off the screen as touch buttons. It uses 3G connectivity, which might seem like an outdated technology, but is good enough to stream SD videos and music. Vodacom has also thrown in some data gifts if the smartphone is activated before the end of September 2018. 

Its camera functionalities might be a slight let down for the aspirant Instagrammer, with a 2MP rear flash camera and a 0.3MP selfie snapper. Speed wise, the keyboard pops up quickly, which is a huge improvement from the Smart Kicka 3. However, this phone will not play well with graphics-intensive games. 

Nokia 1

Next up is the Nokia 1, which adds a much better 5MP camera, improved battery life and a bigger 4.5” screen. It supports LTE, which allows this smartphone to download and upload at the speed of flagships. It also sports the Nokia brand name, which many consumers trust.

Although the front camera is 2MP, the quality is extremely grainy, even with good lighting. This disqualifies this smartphone for the social media selfie snapper, but the 5MP rear camera will work for the landscape and portrait photographer. 

The screen also redeems this smartphone, providing a display which represents colours truly and has great viewing angles. Xpress-on back covers allows the use of interchangeable, multi-coloured back covers, which has proven to be a successful sales point for mid-range smartphones in the past. 

Huawei Y3 (2018)

The most capable of the Android Go edition competitors, the Huawei Y3 (2018) packs an even bigger screen at 5”, as well as an improved 8MP rear camera and HD video recording. The screen is the brightest and most vibrant of the three smartphones, but seems to be calibrated to show colours a little more saturated than they actually are. 

Nevertheless, the camera outperforms the other smartphones with good colour replication and great selfie capabilities via the 2MP front camera – far superior to the Nokia 1 despite the same spec. LTE also comes standard with this smartphone and Vodacom throws in 4G/LTE data goodies until the end of September 2018. The battery, however, is not removable and may only be replaced by a warranty technician.

Comparing the 3

All three smartphones have removable back covers, which provide access to the battery, SIM card and SD card slots. The smartphones have Micro USB ports on the bottom with headphone jacks on the top. The built-in speakers all performed well, with the Y3 (2018) housing an exceptionally loud built-in speaker. 

Although all at different price points, all three phones remain similar in performance and speed. The differentiators are apparent in the components, like camera quality and screen quality. It would be fair to rank the quality of the camera and battery life by respective market prices. The Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performed well, for its R399 retail price. The Nokia 1, on the other hand, lags quite a bit in features when compared to the Huawei Y3 (2018), bwith oth retailing at R999.

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SA gets digital archive

As the world entered the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth on Mandela Day, 18 July 2018, South Africa celebrated the launch of a digital living archive. 

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The southafrica.co.za  site carries content about the country’s collective heritage in South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Designed as a nation building,  educational and brand promotion web based tool, the free-to-view platform features award-winning photographic and written content by leading South African photographers, authors, academics and photojournalists.

The emphasis is on quality, credible, factual content that celebrates a collective heritage in terms of the following: Cultural Heritage; Natural Heritage; Education; History; Agriculture; Industry; Mining; and Travel.

At the same time as reflecting on the nation’s history, southafrica.co.za celebrates South Africa’s natural, cultural and economic assets so that the youth can learn about their nation in their home language.

Southafrica.co.za Founder and CEO Hans Gerrizen conceptualised southafrica.co.za as a means for youth and communities from outlying areas to benefit from the digital age in terms of the web tool’s empowering educational component.

“We can only stand to deepen our collective experience of democracy and become a more forward planning nation if we know facts about our nation’s past and present in everyone’s home language,” he says.

Southafrica.co.za, with sister company Siyabona Africa, is the organiser and sponsor of the Mandela: 100 Moments photographic exhibition that runs until 30 September at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront-based Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.  The 3-month exhibition, which runs daily from 08h00 until 15h00, is showcasing one hundred iconic Nelson Mandela images taken by veteran South African photojournalist and self-taught lensman Peter Magubane.

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