Ransomware attack paralyses St Louis libraries as hackers demand bitcoins

Borrowers are unable to return or borrow books, or use computer facilities, in any of the city’s 16 branches

Libraries in St Louis have been bought to a standstill after computers in all the city’s libraries were infected with ransomware, a particularly virulent form of computer virus used to extort money from victims.

Hackers are demanding $35,000 (£28,000) to restore the system after the cyberattack, which affected 700 computers across the Missouri city’s 16 public libraries. The hackers demanded the money in electronic currency bitcoin, but, as CNN reports, the authority has refused to pay for a code that would unlock the machines.

As a result, the library authority has said it will wipe its entire computer system and rebuild it from scratch, a solution that may take weeks.

On Friday, St Louis public library announced it had managed to regain control of its servers, with tech staff continuing to work to restore borrowing services. The 16 libraries have all remained open, but computers continue to be off limits to the public.

Spokeswoman Jen Hatton told CNN that the attack had hit the city’s schoolchildren and its poor worst, as many do not have access to the internet at home. “For many … we’re their only access to the internet,” she said. “Some of them have a smartphone, but they don’t have a data plan. They come in and use the wifi.”

As well as causing the loans system to seize up, preventing borrowers from checking out or returning books, the attack froze all computers, leaving no one able to access the four million items that should be available through the service.

The system is believed to have been infected through a centralised computer server, and staff emails have also been frozen by the virus. The FBI has been called in to investigate.

Ransomware has become increasingly popular as a weapon with which to extort money from corporations, public authorities and institutions and rich individuals. The FBI estimated that, in the first three months of 2016, $209m was conned out of victims and has warned that incidents will increase as hackers become more sophisticated in their attempts to dupe computer users.

Victims are hacked by clicking on an innocuous looking attachment or website link within an email. This releases malicious software that disables the victim’s computer system and any computers on the same network.

Ransom notes then appear across the network demanding money paid in Bitcoin in return for a decryption key that will disable the virus. However, there is no guarantee that the key will work or prevent further attacks.

Last year, the FBI cyber division assistant director James Trainor warned that attacks were becoming increasingly sophisticated. “These criminals have evolved over time and now bypass the need for an individual to click on a link,” he said. “They do this by seeding legitimate websites with malicious code, taking advantage of unpatched software on end-user computers.”

Security software specialist Malwarebytes estimated that as many as two-fifths of businesses in the UK, US, Canada and the Germany were hit by ransomware attacks in 2016.


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Silk Road shutdown: how can the FBI seize Bitcoins?

FBI seized $3.6m Bitcoin fortune of the alleged Silk Road mastermind – but how can you seize a currency that doesn't exist?

Adam Gabbatt and Dominic Rushe in New York

03, Oct, 2013 @1:40 PM

Article image
Missouri could jail librarians for lending 'age-inappropriate' books
Bill would allow parents to decide whether children should have access to controversial books, with heavy penalties if libraries disobey

Alison Flood

16, Jan, 2020 @1:03 PM

Article image
Booze, bankruptcy, brain haemorrhage: the comics turning tragedy into laughs
A former alcoholic, a cancer survivor and a man who lost all his money in a Bitcoin crash are among the comics coming back from the brink at the Edinburgh fringe

Ben Williams

01, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Los Angeles hospital paid $17,000 in bitcoin to ransomware hackers
Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center had lost access to its computer systems since 5 February after hackers installed a virus that encrypted their files

Danny Yadron in San Francisco

18, Feb, 2016 @2:37 AM

Article image
50 Cent denies reports he is a bitcoin millionaire
The rapper, still ironing out a bankruptcy case, said he’d promoted the false reports because they were ‘favourable to my image’

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

27, Feb, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
US libraries join struggle to resist the Trump administration
Along with efforts to guide readers to trustworthy information sources, many branches are working to make themselves ‘sanctuary spaces’ for immigrants

Danuta Kean

21, Feb, 2017 @2:45 PM

Article image
US libraries report spike in Islamophobic hate speech since election
As well as an attempt to remove a student’s hijab at the University of New Mexico, books across the country have been defaced

Danuta Kean

12, Dec, 2016 @12:18 PM

Article image
Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin review – where there’s geeks there’s brass
This history of bitcoin illuminates the cryptocurrency’s nerdy origins and vast potential

John Naughton

02, Jun, 2015 @5:30 AM

Article image
Protest seeks to stop US libraries supporting Drag Queen Story Hour
Nearly 100,000 Christians have signed a petition to end backing for the events that present kids with ‘unabashedly queer role models’

Alison Flood

07, Aug, 2019 @11:23 AM

Article image
Brace yourself for a cyber-tsunami – the six biggest waves of change about to hit the world
Author Alec Ross looks at how robots, genomics and big data are going to change our lives forever

Alex Hern

05, Feb, 2016 @7:00 AM