The Dangers of Killware

Killware is the latest — and perhaps scariest — cyber threat making headlines. Learn what killware is and why everyone should be aware of the dangers it poses. 

By now everyone knows that bad actors are constantly prowling the internet, waiting for innocent victims to prey on. From phishing and smishing attacks to ransomware and more, these threat actors have exploited a variety of avenues to take advantage of individuals and organizations from all walks of life. 

In the past year, a new type of threat has come to light: killware. Killware is a form of malware that is designed to intentionally cause physical harm and even death to people. While for now there haven’t been a huge number of known killware attacks, Gartner predicts that within the next four years, bad actors will be routinely weaponizing various technologies and environments to cause intentional harm to people. 

As the threat of killware becomes more pressing, it’s important to take a step back to understand what Killware actually is, what it means for individuals and organizations alike, and what we can do to stay safe. 


What Is Killware and Who’s at Risk?

Killware is defined as a form of malware that is deployed with the sole purpose of causing physical harm or death. The sole goal of the cyber psychopaths who deploy killware is to cause real-life destruction that spreads beyond the virtual sphere. The reason that killware risks are on the rise is that every aspect of our world is becoming increasingly digitally dependent. With everything from water treatment plants, to healthcare machines, to cars, and even cities as a whole being controlled over the internet, there are ever more opportunities for threat actors to create more serious and widespread danger than ever before. 

In terms of deployment, killware functions in much the same way as ransomware. The difference is that instead of threatening encryption or publication of sensitive and critical data in exchange for money (as is typical of ransomware), the only motive of killware is to harm people. Financial gain is never the main objective. 

In recent years, cybercriminals of all kinds have increasingly been targeting critical infrastructure with the aim of causing as much damage as possible. Some of the areas that are prime targets for killware include:

  • Public health facilities, including hospitals
  • Power grids
  • Water supplies
  • Gas and oil supplies
  • Aviation
  • Banks
  • Transportation infrastructure 
  • Police and fire departments, including dispatch operations
  • Emergency response systems 
  • Food and basic necessity supply chains
  • Any other networked community resource or “smart” technology


The Importance of Being Aware of Killware

Even if you don’t see your company or industry on this list, that doesn’t mean you can simply ignore killware and assume it will never impact you. Killware is undeniably on the rise — and its danger isn’t restricted to the targets themselves. The goal is to cause widespread damage and with any of the industries above a successful killware attack could have a serious impact on the broader civilian population. It is for all these reasons that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently designated killware as an emerging cyber threat even more urgent than standard ransomware. In an interview with USA Today, DHS Secretary Alejandro Majorkas called killware the “next breakout cybersecurity threat.” 


Examples of Killware in Action

Fortunately, there has not yet been a major killware attack that has gone undetected until it was too late. But we have certainly come dangerously close to that reality. 

The most high-profile incident was an attack in February 2021 on an Oldsmar, Florida water treatment plant. In the attack, hackers breached the plant’s systems and increased the level of sodium hydroxide in the water to a lethal level; more than 100 times the safe limit. Fortunately, the plant’s operator was able to respond in time and no one was harmed. But for a terrifying few minutes, there was a very real possibility that the community’s water supply was going to deliver lethally contaminated water to 15,000 people. 

Other incidents have similarly come far too close to opening the door to successful killware attacks. One frightening example occurred when vulnerabilities were discovered in insulin pumps and infusion pumps that would allow threat actors to remotely manipulate medication doses and pose serious, potentially life-threatening risks, to patients. Thankfully these vulnerabilities were caught in time by the right people, but the alternative could’ve proved devastating.

As we look toward an increasingly automated future, there will be new opportunities for bad actors to develop killware attacks. One particularly frightening avenue is a killware attack targeting autonomous vehicles. Threat actors could take control and steer these cars directly into incoming traffic or into populated areas. As these cars come on the roads, it’ll be up to key players to make sure that these dangers don’t play out. 


Staying Secure in the Face of Cyber Threats

While we can never stop bad people from taking advantage of any vulnerability they find, we do have the power to make their work harder by implementing robust cybersecurity measures that protect everything from our networks to our vehicles to our water treatment plants. 

Even if your business isn’t at major risk for a killware attack, it’s important for everyone to be aware of the danger of these attacks. Killware teaches us a valuable lesson about just how far bad actors will go to get what they want, whether that’s physical harm to a population or sensitive data from a standard phishing attack. 

The only way to keep these bad actors from taking advantage of your vulnerabilities is not to have any. The best way to achieve that is by strengthening your cybersecurity posture. The experts at Turn-key Technologies, Inc. (TTI) are here to help you do just that. With 30 years of experience helping organizations of all shapes and sizes become cybersecure, TTI has the knowledge and expertise to help you keep threat actors out no matter their goals. 

Contact us today to learn more about how TTI can help you stay cyber secure!


By Tony Pugielli


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