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Remember that OTHER virus? 3 min read

Remember that OTHER virus?

Three years ago, worlds were turned upside down by a computer virus known as WannaCry. WIRED tells the story of how we avoided a global disaster.

By Cary Littlejohn
Remember that OTHER virus? Post image

As we struggle to make sense of the havoc wrought by the coronavirus, many states are relaxing restrictions on citizens’ access to public life. This has been criticized by many as premature, and celebrated by others as long overdue. At the root of that disagreement, somewhere buried deep, is a fundamental disagreement over the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus. If it’s not a disagreement over its contagiousness, then it’s a disagreement over its seriousness. The downstream effects of the pandemic, including the halting of the American economy, are certainly severe enough to warrant discussions at the highest levels of governments, both federal and state, about when, and how, to start getting back to normal. But that very serious debate doesn’t seem like it should cause us to question this virus’s capacity to spread, to transmit between us without much resistance at all, as the numbers of cases and deaths demonstrate.

As we contemplate transmissibility and modify our actions out in public to reduce the chances of spread, it’s an interesting time to check out WIRED’S most-recent cover story about the vilified yet heroic young hacker who stopped the WannaCry virus. Remember the WannaCry virus, that devilish piece of ransomeware that would lock up infected computers and demand payment in bitcoin to release the files? It was the worst cyber attack in history of hacking; it was only three years ago, but admittedly, a lot has happened since then.

The connection between WannaCry and our current pandemic reality is transmissibility. According to a TechCrunch article from last year, WannaCry’s spread was rapid:

WannaCry spread like wildfire, encrypting hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries in a matter of hours.

The main message of the article was even scarier than the rapidity of the spread:

As many as 1.7 million internet-connected endpoints are still vulnerable to the exploits, according to the latest data. Data generated by Shodan, a search engine for exposed databases and devices, puts the figure at the million mark — with most of the vulnerable devices in the U.S. But that only accounts for devices directly connected to the internet and not the potentially millions more devices connected to those infected servers. The number of vulnerable devices is likely significantly higher.

But WIRED doesn’t just talk about the virus; in all honesty, it doesn’t dwell on the virus itself much at all. The story is about the young hacker who saved us all from WannaCry – his background and upbringing, his hacking bona fides, and ultimately, his arrest by the FBI.

Had they made a mistake? Did they think he was responsible for the virus instead of stopping it? No, but that’s what many who heard of his arrest thought; in actuality, they figured out about his hacking past, the numerous illegal activities he’d committed, and wanted him to pay.

I’m not going to write much more about the story because it’s a LONG story; it’s thorough and deeply reported, and his previous exploits are full of jargon but still incredibly accessible for a layperson. His story is captivating, and because of his young age, the story feels like it covers his entire life with depth. But I’ll say this: the payoff of the story’s ending is so worth the time commitment. It becomes a meditation on past mistakes and whether they be absolved by goodness; can we course-correct and even out that cosmic ledger? The narrative races forward with a thriller’s pacing and suspense, and because this story had so completely receded from my memory, I had no clue of anything that had happened to the young man. (Even his name, Marcus Hutchins, was unknown to me before I started the story.) You’ll want to know what happens to him, and you’ll likely have a strong opinion about what should happen to him. The story doesn’t preach at you; you’re free to think whatever your head and heart dictates. But you can’t read the story without at least wrestling with the big question, challenging your perceptions of right and wrong, at least a little bit. And that’s the mark of a remarkable piece of narrative reporting and storytelling.

Grab a snack and a drink and settle in for a riveting crime story:

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet | WIRED

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