Papua New Guinea hit ransomware during the Covid-19 crash

Patients are treated at the makeshift Covid-19 Hospital in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, October 9, 2021.

Patients are treated at the makeshift Covid-19 Hospital in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, October 9, 2021.
Photography: Andrew Kutan / AFP (Getty Images)

Papua New Guinea’s finance office has been hit by a cyber ransomware attack and hackers are demanding bitcoin, according to Bloomberg News. And while many details about the attack are still unclear, it is becoming apparent that hackers will no longer target only the richest countries and the richest ransomware corporations.

Papua New Guinea, a country of 9 million people north of Australia and east of Indonesia, is heavily dependent on foreign aid to fund many services in the country. Unknown hackers attacked PNG’s finance department and its Integrated Financial Management System, which manages much of that financial aid.

The cyber attack allegedly happened last week, and although we know that hackers were looking for bitcoin, the cryptocurrency of choice for hackers for ransomware, the government of Papua New Guinea will not say how much money was requested. Ransomware typically involves encrypting sensitive files and seeking ransom for decryption keys. In this case, foreign aid funds appear to have even been frozen, according to Bloomberg, although the mechanism of how this happened is still unknown.

On top of all that, Papua New Guinea has been battling some of the worst increases in Covid-19 infection to date in recent weeks. The country currently has an average of about 388 cases a day, which is widely believed to be too little of the actual number due to poor testing, according to the Australian ABC News. The Pacific nation is also struggling with vaccination against Covid-19, achieving a hitherto poor vaccination rate of 1.2%.

There are simply not enough places in local hospitals to care for Covid-19 patients, and oxygen supplies are dangerously low, say people on the ground who testified tragedy unfolded. Last week alone, at least 100 people arrived at the PNG General Hospital in Port Moresby dead of Covid-19. The influx of the dead forced local leaders to plan a mass funeral so that the corpses would not take up so much space in the crowded morgue.

As ABC explains, part of the fight to vaccinate people in Papua New Guinea is the proliferation of conspiracy theories online:

Widespread conspiracy and misinformation theories shared on the Internet have been accused; their spread was aided by distrust of government and authority. In some communities, health workers who offer the vaccine are even threatened or attacked.

In April, Facebook announced that it was launching an educational campaign in PNG, but it did not seem to have expanded. ABC asked how many users were represented and is waiting for an answer.

Gizmodo also emailed Facebook about his education campaign in Papua New Guinea, which explained that his ads reached over 800,000 people.

A media literacy campaign in Papua New Guinea, Covid Disinformation, has launched ads on Facebook and Instagram educating users on the best tips for spotting COVID-19-related misinformation online, ”a Facebook spokesman told Gizmodo early Thursday.

Between April 7 and June 28, the ads reached over 800,000 people and had over 4.6 million views. 88% of the people covered were under 45 years of age. 38% of the people included were women and 62% were men. ”

In the meantime, let’s hope hackers don’t soak up PNG as much as it’s worth. Large companies like JBS meat processors, which paid $ 11 million in bitcoins earlier this year to decrypt their files, can absorb such costs. These days, you could even incorporate them into your regular budgets, as bitcoin ransomware is becoming more common. But countries like PNG are financially hanging by a thread. They just don’t need this shit right now.

Updated at 7:28 ET with a comment from Facebook about his program in PNG format.

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Naveen Kumar

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