In this week’s Tech Time Warp, we look at the recent cybersecurity news out of Las Vegas sounds like something from Ocean’s 11, no matter whether your taste runs to Frank Sinatra or George Clooney: two of the world’s largest casino owners hit by a ransomware attack, with one choosing to pay the ransom and the other muddling through days of dark slot machines, no access to comps and long reservation lines.
The first known case of ransomware could also be a Hollywood plotline: An eccentric researcher who views himself as a Robin Hood-type sends out a floppy disk with malware demanding payment to a foreign country, then incriminates himself in an airport meltdown.
The infamous 1989 PC Cyborg Trojan attack and its unusual aftermath
In 1989, Dr. Joseph Popp created the PC Cyborg Trojan, aka the AIDS Trojan. He sent 20,000 AIDS researchers across the globe a 5.25-inch floppy disk purportedly containing a survey about AIDS risk—and the PC Cyborg Trojan. Once inserted in a user’s machine, the ransomware lay dormant for 89 reboots. Upon the 90th, the user was told to turn on the computer’s printer, which would then spit out a note demanding $189 payable to a post office box in Panama. The payload encrypted filenames to make data inaccessible.
File recovery tools emerged quickly, and authorities caught Popp within two weeks of the virus’ first appearance. His stated motive was a Robin Hood-esque fundraiser for AIDS research. Some attributed his actions to a recent employment rejection from the World Health Organization (WHO). It is true that he was apprehended after causing a ruckus at the Amsterdam airport while traveling home from a WHO gathering in Nairobi. He wrote “DR. POPP HAS BEEN POISONED” on another passenger’s suitcase. His own bag was found to contain a “PC Cyborg Corp.” seal. The FBI arrested Popp at his parents’ home in Ohio. They extradited him to the UK, where he was determined unfit to stand trial.
Following his release, Popp established a butterfly conservatory in Oneonta, New York. He died in 2007. In today’s dollars, Popp’s ransom would equate to just over $464—still a bargain compared with the going rate on the Strip.
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