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(By a former Marxmailer.)
NY Times Op-Ed, May 16 2017
The World Is Getting Hacked. Why Don’t We Do More to Stop It?
by Zeynep Tufekci
The path to a global outbreak on Friday of a ransom-demanding computer
software (“ransomware”) that crippled hospitals in Britain — forcing the
rerouting of ambulances, delays in surgeries and the shutdown of
diagnostic equipment — started, as it often does, with a defect in
software, a bug. This is perhaps the first salvo of a global crisis that
has been brewing for decades. Fixing this is possible, but it will be
expensive and require a complete overhaul of how technology companies,
governments and institutions operate and handle software. The
alternative should be unthinkable.
Just this March, Microsoft released a patch to fix vulnerabilities in
its operating systems, which run on about 80 percent of desktop
computers globally. Shortly after that, a group called “Shadow Brokers”
released hacking tools that took advantage of vulnerabilities that had
already been fixed in these patches.
It seemed that Shadow Brokers had acquired tools the National Security
Agency had used to break into computers. Realizing these tools were
stolen, the N.S.A. had warned affected companies like Microsoft and
Cisco so they could fix the vulnerabilities. Users were protected if
they had applied the patches that were released, but with a catch: If an
institution still used an older Microsoft operating system, it did not
receive this patch unless it paid for an expensive “custom” support
The cash-strapped National Health Service in Britain, which provides
health care to more than 50 million people, and whose hospitals still
use Windows XP widely, was not among those that signed up to purchase
the custom support from Microsoft.
They were out in the cold.
On May 12, a massive “ransomware” attack using one of those
vulnerabilities hit hospitals in Britain, telecommunication companies in
Spain, FedEx in the United States, the Russian Interior Ministry and
many other institutions around the world. They had either not applied
these patches to systems where it was available for free, or had not
paid the extra money for older ones.
Computer after computer froze, their files inaccessible, with an ominous
onscreen message asking for about $300 worth of “bitcoin” — a
cryptocurrency that allows for hard-to-trace transfers of money.
Ambulances headed for children’s hospitals were diverted. Doctors were
unable to check on patients’ allergies or see what drugs they were
taking. Labs, X-rays and diagnostic machinery and information became
inaccessible. Surgeries were postponed. There was economic damage, too.
Renault, the European automaker, had to halt production.
The attack was halted by a stroke of luck: the ransomware had a kill
switch that a British employee in a cybersecurity firm managed to
activate. Shortly after, Microsoft finally released for free the patch
that they had been withholding from users that had not signed up for
expensive custom support agreements.
But the crisis is far from over. This particular vulnerability still
lives in unpatched systems, and the next one may not have a convenient
While it is inevitable that software will have bugs, there are ways to
make operating systems much more secure — but that costs real money.
While this particular bug affected both new and old versions of
Microsoft’s operating systems, the older ones like XP have more critical
vulnerabilities. This is partly because our understanding of how to make
secure software has advanced over the years, and partly because of the
incentives in the software business. Since most software is sold with an
“as is” license, meaning the company is not legally liable for any
issues with it even on day one, it has not made much sense to spend the
extra money and time required to make software more secure quickly.
Indeed, for many years, Facebook’s mantra for its programmers was “move
fast and break things.”
This isn’t all Microsoft’s fault though. Its newer operating systems,
like Windows 10, are much more secure. There are many more players and
dimensions to this ticking bomb.
During this latest ransomware crisis, it became clear there were many
institutions that could have patched or upgraded their systems, but they
had not. This isn’t just because their information technology
departments are incompetent (though there are surely cases of that,
too). Upgrades come with many downsides that make people reluctant to
For example, the more secure Windows 10 comes with so many privacy
concerns that the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued numerous alerts
about it, and the European Union is still investigating it. My current
Windows 10 machine is more secure but it advertises to me in the login
screen. (Are they also profiling me to target advertisements? A fair
question in this environment.)
Further, upgrades almost always bring unwanted features. When I was
finally forced to upgrade my Outlook mail program, it took me months to
get used to the new color scheme and spacing somebody in Seattle had
decided was the new look. There was no option to keep things as is.
Users hate this, and often are rightfully reluctant to upgrade. But they
are often unaware that these unwanted features come bundled with a
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