Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Cybercriminals are holding Baltimore hostage

Hackers are demanding a bitcoin ransom.

Cybercriminals are holding Baltimore hostage
Image source: posteriori/Shutterstock
  • 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.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Keep reading Show less

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less

Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast