MOSCOW — Just weeks before the ransomware gang known as DarkSide attacked the owner of a major American pipeline, disrupting gasoline and jet fuel deliveries up and down the East Coast of the United States, the group was turning the screws on a small, family-owned publisher based in the American Midwest.
Working with a hacker who went by the name of Woris, DarkSide launched a series of attacks meant to shut down the websites of the publisher, which works mainly with clients in primary school education, if it refused to meet a $1.75 million ransom demand. It even threatened to contact the company’s clients to falsely warn them that it had obtained information the gang said could be used by pedophiles to make fake identification cards that would allow them to enter schools.
Woris thought this last ploy was a particularly nice touch.
“I laughed to the depth of my soul about the leaked IDs possibly being used by pedophiles to enter the school,” he said in Russian in a secret chat with DarkSide obtained by The New York Times. “I didn’t think it would scare them that much.”
DarkSide’s attack on the pipeline owner, Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline, did not just thrust the gang onto the international stage. It also cast a spotlight on a rapidly expanding criminal industry based primarily in Russia that has morphed from a specialty demanding highly sophisticated hacking skills into a conveyor-belt-like process. Now, even small-time criminal syndicates and hackers with mediocre computer capabilities can pose a potential national security threat.
Where once criminals had to play psychological games to trick people into handing over bank passwords and have the technical know-how to siphon money out of secure personal accounts, now virtually anyone can obtain ransomware off the shelf and load it into a compromised computer system using tricks picked up from YouTube tutorials or with the help of groups like DarkSide.
“Any doofus can be a cybercriminal now,” said Sergei A. Pavlovich, a former hacker who served 10 years in prison in his native Belarus for cybercrimes. “The intellectual barrier to entry has gotten extremely low.”
A glimpse into DarkSide’s secret communications…