The strange story of the world’s first ramsomware attack

Floppy disk used by some computers in the 1990s. Photo: Getty Images.

In December 1989, Eddy Willems’ boss asked him to review a floppy disk sent to attendees at the World Health Organization’s AIDS conference in Stockholm. Willems, who worked for an insurance company, hoped to find information on medical research, but he did not. Days later, the computer crashed and a message appeared demanding that he send $ 189 in an envelope to a in Panama. It was the first reported ramsomware attack.

The diskette that Willems had received was sent to about 20,000 people. Fortunately, Willems fixed the problem, and he did not pay the money or lose any information on the computer. But many people were victims of the cyber attack, recalled in an interview with CNN, Willems, who is now an expert in cybersecurity at G Data.

Arrested but not tried

Because the floppy disks had been sent by post – the attack occurred at the dawn of the internet and long before social media – law enforcement tracked down the sender, a PO box owned by an evolutionary biologist named Joseph L. Popp, a Harvard graduate who was conducting AIDS research at the time.

Popp was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, sent back to the United States, and jailed. He allegedly told authorities that he had planned to donate the ransom money to AIDS research.

His lawyers also argued that he was in no condition to stand trial; he reportedly wore condoms on his nose and curlers on his beard to show that he was unwell, and ultimately the judges agreed that he was in no condition to stand trial because of his mental health. Popp died in 2007 and today he is credited with being the inventor of ransomware.

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computer virus or hacker concept, programming script combined with shape of skull

The mysteries surrounding the attack

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The virus, today known as “AIDS trojan” (Aids Trojan or PC Cyborg), required the user to pay $ 189 to “PC Cyborg Corporation” to obtain a repair tool, although the decryption key could be extracted from the code. of the virus, as Willems did.

“Even to this day, no one really knows why he did this,” Willems said. “He was very influenced by something. Maybe someone else was involved, as a biologist, how did he have money to pay for all those records? Was he angry about the research? Nobody knows,” he added, referring to the sending of 20,000 diskettes per way Postcard must have been expensive at the time.

Although the reasons for his act are unknown, Popp made a great effort to clear his name and moved on to other activities, although he did not show any signs of great lucidity either. She published a self-help book called “Popular Evolution,” in which she advocated lowering the age of marriage and for young women to focus their lives on giving birth to their children.

Before his death, Popp created the Joseph L. Popp, Jr. Butterfly Conservatory in upstate New York.

The attacks continue decades later

The floppy disk with the ransomware is now a part of history as ransomware and attacks increase and their severity.

An attack on the Colonial pipeline, 30 years after the ramsomware sent by Popp, crippled fuel supplies in part of the eastern United States. The hackers managed to get the company to pay them $ 5 million.

The floppy disk in Willems’ possession is probably one of the few left in the world, and it hangs on a wall in his living room.

“A museum offered me $ 1,000 for it, but I’ve decided to keep it,” he said.

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