Website generates off-the-shelf cryptocurrencies (so of course NewStatesmanCoin now exists)

It's completely useless, though. Don't bother downloading it. There's no point.

Things are very weird right now for those of us living in the future. Dogecoin - a digital cryptocurrency based on a funny picture of a shiba inu - has a market cap of more than $5m. We were promised jetpacks, we got dog-themed money.

There are so many new Bitcoin ripoffs (mostly by those hoping to make a fast buck) that it was inevitable that someone would create a site that automatically generates them. Coingen, created by a reddit user called Blue Matt, lets users customise their own cryptocurrency (taking either Bitcoin or smaller cousin Litecoin as inspiration), download a wallet, and get mining.

For this, users pay a fee of between 0.05 and 0.2 BTC (roughly £30 to £122 as of writing, going by the average trading price on Mt Gox), with fees for removing Coingen’s logo or getting access to the source code. That’s a tidy fee considering you can only tweak four numerical values for each coin, and the source code for Bitcoin is open and available for free already. Perhaps Blue Matt is taking inspiration from the California Gold Rush, where the biggest profits weren’t in looking for gold, but in selling equipment like picks and buckets to prospectors.

Very Dogecoin. Much currency. So zeitgeist.

And, because why not, we’ve created NewStatesmanCoin - you can download a wallet and start mining here. That’s its rather half-hearted logo up top (we considered replacing the Queen on a pound coin with a picture of deputy editor Helen Lewis, an effort you can enjoy here).

Don’t ask what the block halving rate is, or which mining algorithm it uses - random, now forgotten, numbers were used. We can probably assume from their names that many of the other coins created using Coingen use values that are just as arbitrary: jesuscoin, arbitrarycoin, starvingartistcoin, wethepeoplecoin, silvioberluscoin, realcoin, beercoin, and the catchily-named “wake_up_sheeples_banker_owned_federal_reserve_notes_equals_more_debt”. (There are also a lot of coins with racist names on there. Really, you’ve been warned.)

NewStatesmanCoin is just a joke, but the fact there are so many people who have created their own silly coins - and paid for the privilege - is worth noting. There are dozens of alternatives to Bitcoin, a tiny minority of which have support from any kind of community, and fewer still of which have any practical real-world purpose. While there are uses for cryptocurrencies, they're niche, and not without competition from more traditional companies or other technologies. Not for nothing are people like Gigaom's David Meyer asking what the point of Bitcoin is.

Looking over the transaction volume day-by-day since Bitcoin launched, it's clear that the value of the cryptocurrency has been faster and unlinked from its growth as a medium of exchange. Speculation is still the main drive of Bitcoin value, and the entire drive of Litecoin, Namecoin, and even Dogecoin value, and thus there's surely demand for Coingen's new coins, off-the-shelf and ready to, perhaps, become the next £xm-worth market. While Bitcoin's certainly popular, it's tempting to instead think that it may be the first iteration of a concept yet to be perfected.

You don't have to tell us it's a crappy logo.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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