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12 December 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 11:12am

New computer virus prompts you to infect others to save yourself

A new ransomware that bears a striking similarity to dystopian sci-fi tropes is making the rounds.

By Amelia Tait

In news that is sure to have Charlie Brooker Ctrl+C-ing and Ctrl+V-ing his way through the next series of Black Mirror, security researchers have discovered a new ransomware that allows users to free their machine if they pass on the malware to others.

Dubbed “Popcorn Time”, the ransomware locks your computer files until you pay one bitcoin (currently worth £617) or, in a dystopian twist, pass the virus on to two other people. If those two others become infected and pay the fee, you will then be given a decryption key to unlock your files.

The former method has been dubbed “The fast and easy way”, with the latter labelled “The nasty way” by the malware’s developers. 

The ransomware was discovered by security researchers MalwareHunterTeam last week. According to screenshots from the team, those behind the ransomware claim to be a “group of computer students from Syria” and allege that the money will be used to help those affected by the Syrian war.

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It is unclear whether there is any truth in this claim or this is simply another strange ploy. The idea that hackers could turn humans against each other is a dystopian trope that occurs repeatedly in fiction, most recently in the upcoming horror film The Belko Experiment.

The malware also bears striking resemblance to the plot of a season three episode of Black Mirror, “Shut Up and Dance.” In this episode (spoilers ahead), hackers infect people with malware that records them doing illicit or illegal activities, and then ask their victims to steal money and even kill others to save their own skin.

Despite being a common trope in fiction, however, this type of ransomware is a relatively new reality. Referral marketing – whereby a customer benefits by passing on a service to others – has gained new popularity with firms such as Uber, but this is one of the first times it has been used for nefarious purposes.

As of yet, it is unclear how many victims have been infected and the malware is currently still being developed. According to Bleeping Computer, the code also indicates that the ransomware may delete a victim’s files permanently if they enter the wrong decryption code four times.

In the meantime it is worth noting that you should always back up your files and never click unknown links. “Popcorn Time” also has nothing to do with the torrenting service of the same name.