Daily Tedium

Weirdest Ransom Note Ever

The original piece of ransomware involved AIDS researchers, an evolutionary biologist, and a P.O. Box in Panama. Oh, and butterflies.

By Ernie Smith

Back in the ’80s, it was a big deal when a frustrated satellite dish operator overrode the HBO feed for a few minutes on a Saturday night. But late last year, a saga involving a programmer whose family member’s TV set had fallen victim to ransomware shows we haven’t even scratched the surface of TV hacking.


Ransomware has a long and sordid history, though it’s relatively new to television. (But not too new. Apparently, it’s big in Japan.)

That bizarre situation got me thinking—what was the first piece of ransomware out there? And as it turns out, there’s a hell of a story there, as shared by Practically Unhackable on Medium.

Here’s the gist: Dr. Joseph L. Popp, a Harvard-educated evolutionary biologist, apparently decided to mail a bunch of European AIDS researchers (as well as other people on various British mailing lists) floppy diskettes filled with AIDS education software.

The software worked as advertised, but contained a virus with a heck of a payload. After 90-something reboots, the virus would encrypt files on the hard drive. The software to reverse this could be bought for $189, made payable to a P.O. Box in Panama.

Encryption wasn’t so hot back then, so Popp’s software was easily defeated, but it was nonetheless incredibly annoying for people who, you know, were fighting an incredibly deadly disease. (One AIDS-research organization, in a panic over the virus, lost a decade of work as a result of this stunt.)

The craziest part about all this? Popp, due to being seen as mentally unfit to stand trial because of a series of bizarre incidents after his arrest, never went to trial for his crime. (Wearing condoms on one’s nose has a way of making others question a person’s mental fitness.)

Since then, he went back to his much-less-fraught career path of evolutionary biology, self-publishing a book on the topic in 2000. The most notable byproduct of that career is in Upstate New York, where a butterfly conservatory is named after him.

That twist is nearly as strange as the idea that a TV can be bricked by ransomware.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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