Ransomware is the practice of hackers getting into computers, encrypting all the data, and then demanding a ransom payment, usually in the form of bitcoin or other cryptocurrency, for the key to decrypt the data. Many institutions have paid up.
ProPublica profiles Michael Gillespie who has helped hundreds of people recover their files for free, although he and his family are really hard up. Although he is just 27, he is a cancer survivor and his wife is a diabetic and they have a lot of medical expenses and he does not earn much at his regular job, so much so that he took on a 2:00 am newspaper delivery route to earn a little extra money. But he refuses to charge ransomware victims for his services because he doesn’t want to take advantage f people who have already been taken advantage of.
Like a real-life version of Clark Kent or Peter Parker, the self-effacing Gillespie morphs in his spare time into a crime-foiling superhero. A cancer survivor who works at a Nerds on Call computer repair shop and has been overwhelmed by debt — he and his wife had a car repossessed and their home nearly foreclosed on — the 27-year-old Gillespie has become, with little fanfare or reward, one of the world’s leading conquerors of an especially common and virulent cybercrime: ransomware. Asked what motivates him, he replied, “I guess it’s just the affinity for challenge and feeling like I am contributing to beating the bad guys.”
There are almost 800 known types of ransomware, and Gillespie, mostly by himself but sometimes collaborating with other ransomware hunters, has cracked more than 100 of them. Hundreds of thousands of victims have downloaded his decryption tools for free, potentially saving them from paying hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom.
Gillespie’s tools are available on BleepingComputer.com, and they can be accessed through a site he created and operates, called ID Ransomware. There, victims submit about 2,000 ransomware-stricken files every day to find out which strain has hit them and to obtain an antidote, if one exists.
The internet can be a cesspool of grifters, conmen and women, and all-round lowlifes seeking the most vulnerable to prey on and one can quickly become cynical. But then one comes across people like Gillespie and it helps restore one’s faith in humanity.