People and media are mostly looking at ransomware as a fairly recent problem. That seems to be logical if you see the steep rise of ransomware the past three years. In fact, the problem is much older than most of us think. For this we need to go back in time to the beginning of December 1989.
Back then I was working for a known Belgian insurance company. I received a diskette with a program to evaluate whether it could be useful for the company. It presented a questionnaire which was to determine if you belonged to the risk group of contracting HIV / AIDS. So I started using the diskette on my work computer.
The next day the problems started to appear. I started my PC and found that it didn't do anything. All I got was a message on my screen which stated that I had to send money to a PO Box in Panama. This message was also printed out on my matrix printer. I restarted the PC several times, because just as today, rebooting often fixes things. Still, the same message kept being displayed. So a reboot obviously didn't work this time. I thought that there had to be a bug in the program. I decided to start from a system diskette and saw that the path was changed and directories were encrypted. The program modified files on the victim's hard-drive and when the machine had been rebooted a couple of times, the malware locked the computer. It then presented a message requesting payment for "leasing" the software: you could even read this in the EULA. But seriously, who reads those? So apart from fixing things by rebooting, not reading EULAs was something people already did some 30 years ago. The good news was that I was able to bypass the problem after analyzing what was happened. You could restore everything fairly easy if you did know the extension and filename encryption tables.
When I was watching the television news headlines in the evening it seems I wasn’t the only one who received the diskette: the disk was send to subscribers of PC Business World magazine. Over 10.000 diskettes were distributed over the world and several companies were losing a lot of money as backups seems to be more or less non-existent those days. The disk was called the AIDS information diskette.
At the time, I didn’t realize that the AIDS diskette was the first ransomware. I also underestimated the impact it would have on my personal life and later career. However, I decided to keep the diskette as a reminder and the cornerstone of a nice anecdote. I held on to it for all those years and kept it well protected. Years ago I even put it up on the wall of my living room.
Investigators later identified Dr. Joseph Popp, a Harvard trained biologist, as being behind the AIDS campaign. Unfortunately Dr. Popp gave cybercriminals a lot of bad ideas. Fortunately, though, we had to wait until 2005 and 2006 to see the next examples or ransomware such as GpCode or Krotten, Reveton (Police Trojan) in 2012 and Cryptolocker in 2013, followed by a whole slew of new ransomware in the recent months.