The week the world spun backwards

At 11:20 a.m. on May 27, I left The Madera Tribune’s office on Mitchell Court to have lunch, and when I returned an hour or so later, the world seemed to have turned upside-down.

One of our reporters met me in the parking lot before I could make it through the front door. “We have a terrible problem,” he said. “Someone has hacked our computer system.”

That turned out to be one of the great understatements of the month. What had happened was much worse.

Hacking, as you may know, is the word for the gaining of unauthorized access to data in a computer system, either to steal it or to change it. The hacker is usually from outside, maybe from the other side of the world, and gains access through finding a way around any electronic guards you may have set up, such as passwords, that are installed to keep the system safe. What hit our system turned out to be much worse than mere hacking. We were hit with a “virus” called ransomware, or “Locky.” It was allowed into our computer system accidentally by an employee who opened an innocent-looking email, then opened a document attached to that email. That attachment contained the Locky code. It worked its way through our server, our stored files and our software at 186,000 miles a second … a little too fast for us to do anything about it.

Ransomware does its damage by encrypting every file it encounters, turning it into digital jibberish. A file named “Madera” might turn out to be like this: kkujDhnv7jydu77i&k**.

Changing this nonsense back into English or understandable code would require a lifetime. It was though our world had spun backward 20 years, to when the first computer was brought into the door.

Now, here’s what happened next. We found a message from the kidnappers that if we paid a ransom in Bitcoin, they would unscramble it for us.

As you might imagine, we don’t have any Bitcoins lying around our office. A few quarters, maybe, but that’s about it.

The amount of ransom they asked was way above our ability to pay — nor would we have been inclined to pay it had we had the money.

Fortunately, we had a fallback position. Two people on our staff, along with a freelance genius who who handles our information technology needs, went to work. We also called in a consultant who happens to be a friend, who gave us guidance for the future.

Gradually, our system has been coming back on line, and as long as nobody else opens any virus-bearing emails, we probably will be digitally healthy again in a couple of weeks.

I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers who had to resend their data to us for inclusion in the newspaper.

We are by no means the only business that’s been hit. Large, sensitive organizations such as hospitals have been hit, and have wound up paying the pirates sizable sums to protect the lives and privacy of their patients.

The BBC reports that ransomware attacks have grown in number by 25 percent in just this quarter, and there’s no sign of letup.

What can you do to ward off a ransomware attack, or make it non-fatal? First, install a firewall if your computer doesn’t have one already. Second, back up all your files automatically every day. Third, turn off your computer every night, or at least unplug it from the Internet. Finally, never, never, never, never open an email from somebody you don’t know, but if you do open such an email, don’t click on any link or atachment that might be present.

And keep your fingers crossed.