LET'S REMINISCE: What is ransomware?

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

The cyberattack that crippled the operations of Colonial Pipeline recently—leading to gas shortages throughout the southeastern U.S.—was the latest example of a relatively new kind of security threat. In a “ransomware” attack, hackers use malicious code to hijack a computer system and hold its data hostage for a payment. (Colonial Pipeline announced that it was resuming operations, after paying the hackers over $4 million.)

A recent surge in ransomware attacks puts a 21st-century spin on an age-old concept: capturing someone or something and demanding a payment, or ransom, in return. The word we use for such financial extortion has its own peculiar backstory.

“Ransom” is historically related to another common English word, “redemption.” The two words are known as “doublets” because they share a common source but entered into English by different paths.

“Redemption” is much closer in form to their shared Latin root, “redemptio,” meaning “buying back.” In classical times, the word could refer to freeing a prisoner or captive by making a payment, such as when Julius was captured by pirates in the Aegean Sea. As his biographer Plutarch recounted, Caesar paid the kidnappers—but later returned and had them crucified.

With the advent of Christianity, “redemptio” and its related forms took on a more theological spin. When used in the Vulgate, the official Latin translation of the Bible, it was the term for deliverance from damnation and atonement for sins. Meanwhile, the word took a different trajectory through French, which, in its typical smoothing over of Latin syllables, turned “redemptio” into “rançon.” In English, that became “ranson” and ultimately “ransom.” (Something similar happened with the word “random,” from Old French “randon.”)

When it first entered English, starting in the 13th century, “ransom” could have a range of meanings, including the more religious sense of salvation for humanity. ( Jesus Christ, in the King James version of the First Epistle to Timothy, “gave himself a ransom for all.”) But over time, “ransom” grew more focused, referring specifically to a price for

releasing a captive or hostage, or the act of paying that price. “King’s ransom” came to mean a very large sum of money, enough to secure the release of a captured monarch.

That scenario actually played out in 1193 when King Richard I of England was held captive by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitane, had to pay a ransom to release him.

The extortionary usage began to wane in early modern English, but it was revived by a popular work of fiction: Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel “Ivanhoe.” Scott used “ransom” more than 60 times in the book, as both a noun and verb. Since “Ivanhoe” was set in 12th-century England, the word must have seemed like an old-fashioned throwback to readers at the time, but it was not long before some high-profile kidnapping cases would thrust “ransom” firmly into modern parlance.

In the U.S., the 1874 abduction of a Philadelphia child, Charley Ross, helped bring “ransom” into wider use, as well as phrases like “ransom money” and “ransom letter.” (The boy’s parents were sent letters by blackmailers demanding $20,000 for Charley’s release; unable to pay, they went to the police, but the child was never found.) The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932 gave “ransom” a further boost in public awareness.

When the term “ransomware” first got used in computing, where it playfully referred to “software distributed free of charge but unusable without documentation that costs at least $70,” as a 1988 newsletter for linguists put it. But recently, its meaning has grown much more serious. Cybersecurity company Emsisoft estimates that ransomware may have cost companies up to $170 billion globally last year—a king’s ransom and then some.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.