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When Michael Gillespie was growing up, his parents would go out of their way on family trips to pass through a little town called Metropolis, Illinois, where there was an overzied statue of Superman. Why? To pay their respects. Little did they know that their son would grow up to become a superhero too. A ransomware superhero.
By now, you’re likely familiar with ransomware. It’s the malware that encrypts files on a computer or network and which can only be unlocked by using a special key provided by the hacker after paying a ransom in digital currency like bitcoin. Ransomware is one of the few malwares that allows a hacker to profit from the destruction he or she causes. That’s why it is now a multi-billion-dollar industry that is impacting millions of people and small businesses around the world by shutting their networks down and inflicting enormous costs through business interruptions and even bankruptcies.
For most of us, the defenses are few. Sure, we can use the latest security software, back up our data, get more training and try to keep our operating systems up to date. But these steps don’t guarantee our protection, and if infected we’re really stuck. Do we pay the ransom to these criminals? Even if we do, are we sure they’ll unlock our files? How do we know these villains won’t come back and attack us again?
We need a superhero to save us. Luckily, there is one. His name is Michael Gillespie, and he works at a small business in, of all places, Normal, Illinois. Gillespie, as described in this amazing, recently published ProPublica story by Renee Dudley, is this generation’s ransomware Superman.
Like Superman, Gillespie is, by day, a nerd. But at night, he’s saving the world, one computer at a time. Over the past few years, Gillespie has created a number of decryption tools that have been been credited with helping both businesses and individuals avoid millions of dollars in potential ransom fees. The cost to them? Nothing.
“Every time a new ransomware comes out, he checks it out,” Lawrence Abrams, the founder of ransomware-assistance website BleepingComputer.com — where Gillespie’s tools have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times — told ProPublica’s Dudley. “‘Can it be decrypted? Yes, it can be decrypted. OK, I’ll make the decryptor.’ And it’s just nonstop. He just keeps pumping them out.”
Gillespie spends just about every spare moment going after the ransomware creators, figuring out how to decrypt their malware and sharing these solutions with anyone in need. He does this even though he’s suffered through illness, financial challenges and attacks from the very malware villains that he’s fighting. Yet he fights on.
So why? Why would this man put himself (and his equally superhuman wife) through so much hardship to help people for nothing? Why would he give up the opportunity to make much more money working for a larger firm in a larger city? Why would he willingly subject himself to all those frustrated people and small business owners who, in desperation, annoy him by asking the same questions over and over or don’t follow his directions?
“There’s a time in every IT person’s career where they think, ‘I’m on the wrong side,’” he confided with Dudley. “You start seeing the dollar amounts that are involved. But nah, I can’t say that I ever have. I just don’t care to go that way.”
While the rest of us pursue profits, some superheroes are merely happy doing what they enjoy doing. Hopefully, we’re all saving the world in our own little ways, but I can’t help but think that guys like Gillespie are doing just a little bit more than the rest of us.