Cybercriminals are holding Baltimore hostage
Hackers are demanding a bitcoin ransom.
- Some 10,000 of Charm City's computers were attacked.
- Important day-to-day city functions are out of commission.
- Many municipalities are believed to be under-protected from hackers.
For some time, the internet's seamy underbelly has been the domain of hackers. The image of a teen banging away on a bedroom keyboard wreaking malicious havoc has become a stereotype. Yet, in addition to these lone wolves, we're becoming ever-more aware of worldwide, government-sponsored and operated programs that involve the manipulation of connected devices, not to mention the covert theft and surveillance of our personal data. And then there's ransomware — software unknowingly downloaded to a computer system it can hold hostage until a demand for real-world ransom is met. Ransomware isn't new — Big Think wrote in 2016 about Plainfield, New Jersey's unhappy experience — but now a major American city is seeing a significant number of its services shut down by hackers looking for a payday.
Stealing from everyone to pay the hackers
Image source: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock
On May 7 2017, an estimated 10,000 computers operated by the city of Baltimore, Maryland were taken over by a ransomware program called RobbinHood. The cybercriminals behind the attack digitally delivered a demand for three bitcoins per sub-system (worth about $17,600 at the time), or 13 bitcoins (about $76,280) for the whole shebang before they would surrender control of all of the computers. They also noted that if the ransom wasn't paid within four days, the price would go up.
The Baltimore Sun acquired a copy of the "ransom note," which made clear the purpose of the attack and the need to act promptly: "We won't talk more, all we know is MONEY! Hurry up! Tik Tak, Tik Tak, Tik Tak!" (An expert told the Sun that misspellings and weird grammar are often deliberately used by hackers to throw off investigations, so the strange language doesn't necessarily mean the perpetrators are not native English speakers.) The note included the usual ransom warnings against involving the authorities (the FBI in this case) or begging for a decline extension, "so don't ask for more times or somethings like that." The city immediately noticed the FBI regardless.
Baltimore mayor Bernard Young told reporters, "Right now, I say no. But in order to move the city forward? I might think about it. But I have not made a decision yet."
The impact of the attack
Image source: Mgeyer/Shutterstock
While the attackers fortunately didn't target emergency services such as 911 and 311, they did invade a majority of Baltimore's servers. Among those were the city's email and voice mail; their parking-fine computers; their payment portal for water bills, vehicle citations, and property taxes; and the city's system for processing real estate transactions — some 1,500 pending home sales are simply stuck for the time being.
Fortunately, the local hospitals have been more vigilant than the city, and keep their computers better protected against hacking — Robbinhood is having no effect on them.
The future of ransomware
Baltimore at night
Image source: Mgeyer/Shutterstock
That a municipality such as Charm City had not sufficiently strengthened its defenses against cyberthreats, and thus found itself vulnerable, is no big surprise. In addition to the financial cost of staying ahead of the cyber-bad guys, politicians in local, state, and federal governments are often stunningly obtuse when it comes to technology, and are often well behind the curve. Don Norris of University of Maryland tells the Sun, "You've got increasingly sophisticated and very persistent bad guys out there looking for any vulnerability they can find, and local governments, including Baltimore, who either don't have the money or don't spend it to properly protect their assets."
2017's WannaCry ransomware attack — allegedly courtesy of the North Korean government — made clear just how vulnerable the world's systems are to malicious hacking. It hit tens of thousands of systems in over 100 countries that were running Microsoft Windows as their operating system. In the same year, some American hospitals were also attacked, as were corporations in Ukraine, Russia, Israel, France, and the UK.
In general, cyberattacks and ransomware have come to the fore as certainly among the most worrying threats to modern life. From power grids to water supplies to military infrastructure to banking systems, everything is networked, everything is software, and it's all potentially hackable. That nothing has brought our entire civilization crashing down is likely more due to a lack of intent than any particular technical challenge.
Baltimore's experience is a warning to system administrators at all levels and in both the public and private sectors to stay sharp, and proof that spending precious dollars to keep systems protected — painful as it may be to divert these funds from other important uses — is unfortunately money well worth spending.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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