The possibility of an increased risk of killware attacks in the future is indeed unsettling. However, security agencies are actively addressing the issue and improving their defense mechanism. Explore this guide to learn how to protect yourself against killware attacks.
What comes to your mind when the term “killware” is mentioned? Well, we guess you will most likely think of software capable of deleting files or programs from a computer. However, did you know that killware is something much more sinister?
Killware is a type of malware with malicious purposes–the intentional harm and, in extreme cases, even the termination of human lives. Killware made headlines recently as cyber attackers targeted Oldsmar, Florida, attempting to poison them. Fortunately, the attack was thwarted, but US agencies, including the CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) and Homeland Security, started expressing concerns that Killware could soon target its first victim – an upsetting possibility.
This article comprehensively discusses the killware concept, exploring whether it warrants genuine concern. Likewise, it discusses the various ways in which killware is used to inflict harm on you. Let’s delve right into it!
What is Killware?
Notably, killware attacks cause significant harm, including physical injury or death, to victims. Modern electronic devices, such as toasters and smart thermostats, are increasingly interconnected through the Internet of Things, making our lives easier.
Even crucial infrastructure, including dams, hospitals, electricity grids, and police departments, rely on internet connectivity for efficient management. This connectivity enables various conveniences, like remotely adjusting your living room temperature or facilitating patient check-ups without leaving their homes.
However, linking these devices to the internet poses significant risks that have become familiar over the years. Some significant risks are hacking attempts and viruses rendering devices useless.
The ever-growing reliance on the Internet of Things (IoT) has introduced the potential for killware attacks, and the consequences can be disastrous. This aligns precisely with the intentions of the criminals orchestrating killware attacks.
How is a Killware Attack Carried Out?
A wide range of strategies is employed in a killware attack. Predominantly, cyber attackers use email attachments or links to commit malicious acts. In this case, the attacker sends an email to the target containing an attachment or link. Once clicked, the elements initiate the killware installation on your computer.
Beyond email-based approaches, other strategies include malvertising or drive-by downloads. With the latter, you unknowingly download the malicious software by visiting a compromised website without active user interaction.
Contrarily, malvertising involves attackers embedding malicious ads on legal websites. As an unsuspecting visitor, you engage with these ads and download the killware in the background, amplifying the efficacy of the attack.
Differences Between Killware and Ransomware
Although killware and ransomware pose significant cybersecurity risks, the primary difference lies in the malicious actor’s intent. Recently, ransomware has become a prevalent concern, mainly driven by a clear financial motive.
Perpetrators use ransomware to extort money by encrypting valuable data and demanding payment for its release. On the other hand, the gravest danger with killware is its intent to inflict physical harm on individuals. This distinct purpose sets killware apart, raising concerns about cyber threats.
- Ransomware targets financial gain.
- Killware targets the well-being of individuals through the deliberate cause of physical damage.
During a ransomware attack, hackers deploy malware to infiltrate a system, encrypting files and rendering them inaccessible to their rightful owners. Subsequently, the hacker issues a ransom demand, typically in the form of cryptocurrency.
While the aftermath of ransomware attacks can result in physical distress for the victims, you must recognize that this is not the primary objective. The aim centers around controlling and denying access to crucial files, using this restriction for financial gain.
Contrary to ransomware, killware attacks do not hinge on the prospect of financial gain. Rather than seeking monetary rewards, the hacker intends to inflict death or physical harm upon individuals.
You can think of killware as a form of cyber-terrorism or warfare, using the internet as a means to cause harm on a tangible level. Although there have been no documented instances of successful killware attacks thus far, the looming possibility of future attacks demands recognition as a genuine risk.
Common Killware Targets
Regarding potential targets, killware attacks cast a wide net, ranging from individuals to cities or nations. To better understand the scope, let’s delve into both scenarios with a few illustrative examples:
Due to the pervasive adoption of IoT devices, hackers could remotely infiltrate a system or device, leading to consequential physical harm.
Take, for instance, the smart thermostat’s software; a hacker could introduce malicious code to manipulate temperatures to extreme and intolerable levels. This shows the real-world threat posed to individuals through the compromise of IoT devices by malevolent actors.
Earlier this year, a noteworthy event happened in Texas, emphasizing the risks associated with unauthorized access to smart thermostats. In this case, power companies in the state mistakenly increased temperatures on consumers’ thermostats through remote access granted unknowingly to users.
This occurrence coincided with an intense heatwave, leaving numerous consumers abruptly waking up sweating profusely. If the unintentional temperature increase of just four degrees resulted in significant discomfort for users, what would happen when remote access falls into the wrong hands?
Expanding our perspective on potential killware targets reveals other possibilities, with autonomous vehicles as a compelling example. In this scenario, hackers could remotely control a vehicle, posing threats to the driver, other vehicles, and pedestrians.
Infrastructure and Data
Killware attacks also encompass large-scale and critical infrastructure, capable of disrupting entire cities or countries. A recent incident in Oldsmar perfectly illustrates this risk. Here, hackers attempted to compromise a local water treatment plant by increasing the levels of sodium hydroxide in the water supply to dangerous levels.
While the Oldsmar water supply incident raised several concerns, investigations have tempered the situation’s severity. The attack that caused the uproar wasn’t the result of a sophisticated breach. Instead, it occurred due to a lapse in the cybersecurity practices, where staff at the facility had reused passwords on TeamViewer, a remote access software.
The incident emphasizes the importance of robust cybersecurity practices, as killware attacks persist and demand vigilant attention regardless of complexity.
Given the ransomware incidents that have temporarily compelled medical facilities to suspend services, hospitals are the prime targets for potential killware attacks.
Past ransomware attacks on hospitals have prompted heightened awareness, leading the CISA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to release an advisory offering guidance to healthcare providers on navigating ransomware threats.
Such heightened risks prove that a ransomware attack, if not for financial gain, could potentially escalate into a more sinister form—a killware attack.
Several red flags that can indicate potential killware attack within the healthcare sector include:
- Sudden changes in medical records
- Missing data
- Unexplained financial records
Success and Impact of Killware
In May 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack targeted over 230,000 systems across 150 countries. Cyber attackers successfully infiltrated systems, encrypting crucial files and issuing a hefty ransom demand. They even threatened permanent loss if payment was not made.
Notably, WannaCry capitalized on a security flaw in the Microsoft Windows operating system, previously exploited by the US National Security Agency. Additionally, In September 2016, Matthew Fleischer was at the mercy of killware ransomware.
Faced with a demand of $10,000 ransom, he refused to pay. In retaliation, cybercriminals remotely accessed his computer, encrypting vital files and erasing all stored backups. After that, the attackers demanded an additional $10,000 to decrypt Fleischer’s files.
Ways to Protect Yourself from a Killware Attack
Being a more sinister and potentially lethal iteration of existing malware, killware warrants a proactive defense strategy. The precautionary steps to protect yourself align closely with those in an anti-ransomware plan.
You can consider the following precautions:
- Install a VPN: Installing a VPN bolsters the security of your entire IoT network. This proactive measure encrypts the activities of all connected devices, reducing the risk of unauthorized access. ExtremeVPN is known for its robust security features and provides privacy without compromising speed, privacy, and security.
- Strengthen your network security: We suggest you secure your Wi-Fi and IoT devices with robust passwords. Use ExtremeVPN’s reliable password generator tool to generate and store complex, random passwords that are hard for hackers to guess.
- Use trusted antivirus software: Reliable antivirus software detects and eliminates threats before they compromise your systems. To make an informed decision, explore the available antivirus programs on the market and choose the one that suits your preferences.
- Stay vigilant against spam and phishing threats: Many forms of malware, including BloodyStealer, often penetrate systems through attachments in spam emails. Enhance your protection by understanding how phishing operates and implementing preventive measures.
In addition to these practical tips, heightened security measures involve being aware of the devices in your surroundings. Often, individuals get new gadgets like smart fridges without realizing their connectivity to the internet, making them vulnerable to threats.
By understanding the internet connectivity of all devices in your environment, you take a crucial step toward adequate protection against hacking attempts. Stay informed, stay vigilant!
How to Respond to Killware Attacks
Although killware attacks are not yet commonplace, you must be prepared and take swift action if you suspect your device or company has fallen victim. The following steps, while primarily tailored for large cybersecurity teams, can guide your response:
- Deactivate IoT devices: If your device is compromised, unplug it from the primary electrical connection immediately to ensure complete shutdown.
- Carry out factory resets: Initiate a factory reset for all affected devices. This step is crucial to eliminate any lingering control the hacker might have over your device.
- Contact device manufacturer: Reach out to your device’s manufacturer immediately and report the vulnerability. To further minimize recurring attacks, consider requesting device replacement.
- Notify authorities: In extreme cases where physical harm is a potential outcome, notify relevant authorities promptly. This includes contacting law enforcement and other first responders. Consider reporting to your national cybersecurity agency for comprehensive assistance in preventing future attacks.
Killware is relatively recent, and devising a comprehensive step-by-step prevention plan is challenging due to its broad definition. Hackers may exploit vulnerabilities in cyber-physical systems directly, rendering antivirus scans or quarantining useless to prevent a crisis.
You must prioritize the purchase of certified and secure IoT devices. Additionally, you can protect your digital environment by using reputable antivirus programs and a high-end VPN like ExtremeVPN to protect against various forms of malware.