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Communications of the ACM

Privacy and security

Cryptovirology: The Birth, Neglect, and Explosion of Ransomware


Cryptovirology, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

Cryptovirology was born out of scientific curiosity of what the future may hold for software attacks that merge cryptographic technology with malware. It started at Columbia University as a natural by-product of an unnatural union: a former hacker placed in a room with a cryptographer, both given ample time with which to contemplate the dystopia of tomorrow. Collectively, given our backgrounds, we had amassed a body of highly unconventional scientific problems that hackers face when infiltrating computer systems as well as the foundational cryptography with which to solve those problems.

Our list of problems included the following question: How devastating could the most insidious malicious software attack be against a target? To put things in perspective this was circa 1995. Many people had not heard of the Internet, and among those that did, many were obtaining an email address for the first time. The typical home computer was not online all the time. Users had to use dial-up modems when they wanted to check email. USB technology did not exist. 3.5-inch floppy disks were the norm. Cryptography, for millennia, had been perceived as a purely protective technology, and in particular as a way to hide the content of messages, secure data at rest, and authenticate users.


 

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