Ransomware shows the power and weakness of the web

The interconnected nature of the web is its greatest power, but also its biggest flaw.

Ransomware reflects the complexities and limitations of the web. It's worth remembering those limitations as we rely ever more on computer systems that often have pretty shallow foundations when it comes to security and reliability.

For example, much of the web has been built on trust, with security very much an after-thought. There's always been hacking, of course, but the difficulty of making it pay meant that, apart from state-sponsored attacks and industrial espionage, the impact was quite limited.

But the rise of cryptocurrency, which enables hard-to-track payments, plus the general insecurity of many computer systems, and our total reliance on them, has created the perfect ransomware storm that now engulfs so many companies.

Fixing this problem is not easy. The US administration may now be threatening to take action against ransomware gangs, but because many of them operate from Russia, that's going to be tough.

True, the US could try to break the infrastructure that the gangs use, but that's not without its problems. For a start, these gangs don't have huge infrastructure to attack, and what they do have is easily replaced. Then there's the risk of accidentally disrupting the systems of an innocent organisation in a foreign country, which -- particularly when you're dealing with Russia -- is a good way to raise international tensions.

Most likely the US could try to put a tight financial squeeze on ransomware gangs -- something it has already done by seizing some of the bitcoins sent to them. These gangs are entirely motivated by money, so taking away the ability to receive ransoms or spend their ill-gotten gains is likely to be the most effective way of curtailing their activities. Banning the payment of ransoms might have some impact, but it would also force some unlucky firms out of business if their data was locked up forever.

The ransomware era will probably come to an end at some point, most likely to be replaced with another security worry. Indeed, the rise of supply chain security flaws, which are currently being exploited to spread ransomware, is at least as big a problem.

But the ransomware problem also serves as a reminder: we are increasingly reliant on the web, and the internet beneath it. And much of that infrastructure is creaking, or held in place by obscure but fragile systems or pieces of code. So even after ransomware is long forgotten, the security worries won't go away.

ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER 

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. 

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