Killware vs. Ransomware: What’s the Difference? | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware

At this point, most people are familiar with ransomware. These fast-growing and damaging cyberattacks have repeatedly made headlines, but even more dangerous attack types are starting to emerge. Businesses and consumers now have to worry about killware.

Nonetheless, some argue that there’s some crossover between the two malware types. So what is the difference between killware and ransomware?

What Is Killware?

If you look up killware’s definition, you’ll find a few different answers. Some sources say it’s ransomware that “kills” your software, and others define it as ransomware that threatens violence in exchange for a ransom. The most widely accepted definition is killware is any cyberattack causing physical harm, whether lethal or not.

Cyberattacks hurting or even killing people may sound far-fetched, but it’s becoming increasingly likely. As people rely more on Internet of Things (IoT) devices, hackers can do more damage by taking control of them.

Imagine a hospital using IoT-connected medical equipment. A cybercriminal could hack into those devices and shut them off, endangering people’s lives. Alternatively, hackers could infiltrate an internet-connected electrical grid to shut off all power in an area during a severe weather event.

Killware is already a reality. CNN reported that, in a 2021 cyberattack in Florida, an attacker hacked into a water treatment plant to increase the sodium hydroxide in the water supply to dangerous levels. The facility noticed the attack and quickly set everything back to normal, but it could’ve poisoned thousands if it had gone unnoticed.

Killware vs. Ransomware

It can be easy to confuse killware and ransomware, given the similarity in their names. Some sites also define killware as a type of ransomware, but while there can be a crossover between the two, they’re separate things.

The big difference is what the attacks intend to do. Ransomware attacks can have dire consequences but are financially motivated. They try to extort money from people by threatening to leak or delete sensitive information. Killware attacks intend to harm people physically, and generally aren’t concerned with money or data.

Despite these differences, killware and ransomware can overlap. If an attack threatened to harm someone by jeopardizing an IoT device if they don’t pay a ransom, that would be ransomware and killware. Both kinds of malware also start with an attacker gaining access to a system without users noticing.

How to Defend Against Killware

A man in dark clothes typing in front of several computer monitors.

Killware can be scary—not just because of its name—but you can take some steps to protect yourself. A great place to start is to secure any IoT devices you have, as killware attacks tend to target these. To do that, you can:

  • Use strong passwords.
  • Enable multi-factor authentication.
  • Turn on automatic updates.
  • Consider hosting IoT devices on separate networks, so they don’t risk lateral movement.

If any of your electronics have communication features you don’t use, turn those settings off. These may be convenient, but the more connections a device has, the more potential vulnerabilities it has. It’s also worth checking your Wi-Fi router to ensure you have WPA-2 or WPA-3 encryption.

Good anti-malware programs can pick up on killware before it causes any damage. If you don’t want to pay for a premium version, you can boost your built-in security by turning on options to scan for malware regularly and block unrecognized apps.

Phishing can get past security software if it tricks you into making a mistake, so it’s best to learn how to spot these attempts, too. To stay safe from phishing:

  • Never click on unsolicited links.
  • Double-check email addresses.
  • Be suspicious of any messages with unusual urgency or from companies you haven’t heard of.

Prevention is always best, but sometimes, like in the 2021 Florida water center attack, killware isn’t apparent until it starts working. That’s why you need to do what saved them, i.e. always be on the lookout for suspicious activity. As soon as you notice something unusual with any smart home devices or accounts, adjust them and change your login credentials.

Stay Safe From All Cyberattacks

Cybercrime is always evolving. As things like the IoT become more common, that crime will only become more dangerous, too. You don’t necessarily have to avoid new tech, but you should stay alert about the latest threats.

The first and most important step is to learn more about what you face. When you know about killware and how it can endanger you, you can stay more safe from it.


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National Cyber Security