If you’re anything like me, you probably hadn’t even heard the word “ransomware” until a few weeks ago. Personally, I find it hard enough to keep up with which apps are being used for what sort of social networking and what features are really worth getting whenever I upgrade my phone. But when a huge hospital system was forced to pay a bunch of hackers money to get their health system back up and running, my ears perked up. We’re used to hearing about hackers in the context of home computers or corporate data, but hacking in health is a new, frightening and growing development. Given the recent news, I thought it might be helpful for me to take some time going through what ransomware is and how you can protect your data, personal, health-related or otherwise.
Ransomware Endangers Your Most Precious Files
Take a moment to think about what you have stored on your computer. Your tax information? Photos of your grandchildren? Health care bills? Insurance information? I’ve found the information held on my computer is a bit of a reflection of the things in my life: most of it I wouldn’t mind doing without, but some of it I can’t afford to lose. And while many of us take steps to protect the things that are important to us in our real lives, we often don’t take the same steps in our digital lives. It’s that missing security for the files we can’t afford to lose that hackers use for ransom when your computer is infected by a ransomware virus.
Here’s how it works. The virus finds its way into your computer, often through an infected email attachment or when you end up at an a website set up by hackers. Once the virus makes it on to your computer, it weasels its way into every nook and cranny, taking stock of all of the files on your computer. It then encrypts everything. Encryption is a process normally used to protect your files. It’s a way of scrambling the data so that only a person with the right code can understand what those files say. This is fine as long as you’re the one with the code. But with ransomware, the hackers seal up your files using their virus and withhold the secret code you need to open them until you pay them money. This wouldn’t work if you only had old emails on your computer, but many of us have precious files we can’t afford to lose and that’s how these hackers make their money.
How This Went From Home Files to Health Care
Now that you understand how this devious software works, take a moment to enter the mind of a hacker. Ask yourself what information you might be willing to pay the highest price for. How about information that could mean life or death? As horrific as it sounds, this is what happened at Hollywood Presbyterian when their files were locked up. With digital files needed for daily patient care shut down and patients’ lives hanging in the balance, the hospital eventually had no choice but to pay up. While it’s still unclear if the hackers targeted the hospital on purpose, more are likely to follow in their footsteps. Our health and the health of those we love is often what we hold most dear. Some of the world’s hackers are no doubt going to do whatever they can to exploit that for money.
Protecting Our Systems Relies on Your Individual Actions
Investigators looking into the Hollywood Presbyterian hacking think it all started when an employee opened an infected email that spread throughout the system. In fact, these hackers rely you being deceived by emails and webpages that look so real you’ll click on a link or download a file. That means that the protection of your files and whether or not your system gets infected often rests on your shoulders. Knowing what to look out for, what to avoid, and how to protect yourself on the internet are all key steps to making sure your information stays protected. While it’s probably impossible to stay 100% virus-free, there are many steps you can take to dramatically lower your risk of being infected and having your files held at ransom. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Appreciate digital value. The first step is to shift the way you think about the information on your phone, tablet, computer and networks you use. These systems hold huge amounts of personal and important data, most of which you would never want to lose or allow someone else to have. Unfortunately, most of us don’t treat our information that way. When was the last time you used the digital equivalent of a safe to protect the valuables on your laptop? Thinking about what files and information are on your digital devices and appreciating their true importance will help you realize the need for caution and security.
- Always be suspicious. This mantra especially applies to emails. Dangerous emails might be those from friends you haven’t heard from in years, companies you don’t regularly do business with, or people making strange requests. The most dangerous parts of these emails are links or attachments that either contain a virus or lead you to a place that has one. If you get an email that strikes you as odd, delete it and contact the person you think is trying to reach you to see if it’s real. They can always resend the information if need be.
- Get antivirus software. Antivirus software comes in all types and at all prices and many modern operating systems have it built in. This is a landscape that can be confusing, but the best thing to do is just to ask the dealer where you bought your laptop what they recommend or get advice from the company who makes your computer. Antivirus software can help to keep your computer clean and can warn you when you might be putting it in danger.
- Update your software. It might be annoying to update your computer’s software, especially if it requires a full restart, but these updates help close holes in your computer’s system that could let viruses in. The more up-to-date your computer is, the less likely you’ll be infected.
- Backup all of your files. When it comes to ransomware, the best thing you can do is to backup all of your files regularly. You can do this with a physical hard drive or through an online service. That way, if anything happens to your computer your files are always backed up somewhere else, ready to be restored if you need to wipe your hard drive or buy a new computer. If you’re at a loss as to how to do this, the store where you bought your computer is the best place to start.
- Few things on the internet are truly free. Be suspicious of anything in an email or on a website that offers something for free that you know you’d normally pay for. Often times hackers use these tempting offers to get you to download their viruses.
- Get help ASAP. If you think your computer has been infected, don’t wait. Contact the location where you bought the computer or the manufacturer for help. There may be ways of removing the virus or preventing it from doing more damage.
I hope these tips help safeguard you from the sinister side of the internet. Being cautious can help to prevent you and the systems that rely on your good judgement from getting infected. Your actions could help keep safe your computer systems and the lives of those who rely on them.