From Floppy Disks to Crypto: The Rise of Ransomware in Healthcare

The world’s first documented ransomware attack had direct ties to healthcare, Nelson notes. In 1989, Joseph Popp, an evolutionary biologist, installed a Trojan horse on 5.25 -inch floppy disks and distributed them to AIDS researchers. When users booted their computer, the virus encrypted directories and files. To get them back, users had to wire $189 to a P.O. box based in Panama.

As ransomware evolved over the next three decades, attackers attempted to extort users first by getting them to install fake anti-virus software, then by locking users out of their computers and finally by encrypting files.

Modern ransomware attacks emerged following the introduction of chip and PIN credit cards, Nelson notes. The security improvements associated with personal identification numbers and cryptographic algorithms hurt cybercriminals, as cloned cards were largely useless without a PIN.

“Criminals needed new ways to target people and make money,” he says. “That’s where cryptocurrency came into its own. It gave criminals a means for anonymous and real-time payments.”

Today’s ransomware typically uses malicious software to gain access to networks, look for valuable data, gain administrative privileges, encrypt the valuable data and demand ransom, according to Trend Micro. Attackers may also threaten to disclose data, initiate a distributed denial of service attack, or harass a victim’s patients via email or social media.

Most attacks today are carried out by cartels working in nations where governments are willing to look the other way, Nelson says. The attackers are also not afraid to disrupt day-to-day life. As the American Hospital Association notes, this is a stark contrast to the early days of ransomware, when hackers tended to be hobbyists seeking to do financial but not physical harm. (In fact, Popp claimed the ransom he collected would be used to fund AIDS research.)


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