What is killware? The deadly malware explained

Anton P. | October 27, 2021

Killware proves that cybersecurity threats can mutate to the point of threatening people’s lives. Malware is devastating, and infections like ransomware can disrupt the operations of schools, corporations, and even hospitals. However, computer viruses usually do not lead to a person’s death. Killware is a new malware strain targeting critical parts of a nation’s infrastructure. Different from ransomware, killware might not negotiate or give victims an escape. As described by cybersecurity specialists, this breed aims to harm instead of pursuing monetary gain.

What is killware? The deadly malware explained

What is killware?

Killware refers to cyber-attacks capable of compromising the health and welfare of people. Of course, ransomware has an eerie reputation for halting emergency services and medical institutions. One tragic story narrates the death of an infant born with a severe brain injury. The baby’s mother claims that the hospital took her in without revealing that they had been hit by ransomware. Thus, the attack had compromised the care given to her and her child.

There are many similar stories on ransomware disrupting medical treatments. However, such infections are not killware. Why? Well, with ransomware, hackers typically have one goal: to make people or institutions pay the ransom. So, they are after money. The loss of life is not necessarily intentional.

On the other hand, killware deliberately harms people. Thus, security experts have labeled such hackers as psychopaths, particularly interested in inflicting trauma and injuries.

How did killware appear?

Killware is not an entirely new concept. Triton malware is one of the older examples. In 2017, it targeted a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia. Hackers tried to disable safety setups designed for shutting down the plant in case of a hazardous event. In situations like this, it is no longer malware; it is killware.

Now, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has forewarned about the corrupt nature of killware. After all, it does not have the expected ulterior motives like money or fame for penetrating highly-secured systems.

The incident that shoved killware into the public’s eye happened in Oldsmar, Florida. In February, the water treatment facility suffered an abnormal attack. The hackers remotely accessed the water treatment plant to poison the water supply.

How? The perpetrators manipulated the sodium hydroxide levels in the water, raising it to the toxic point. Slight traces of sodium hydroxide can, say, remove heavy metals from water. Higher levels of it can trigger skin irritation or death from severe burns in more extreme cases.

Thus, the frightening objective of killware is to, essentially, kill. This downright repellent nature makes it one of the most dangerous threats to enter the stage.

More focus on nations’ infrastructures

Killware repeats the frightening hackers’ pattern of targeting critical parts of the nations’ infrastructure. We have already witnessed it with ransomware. After all, most of these infections are after grand institutions capable of paying hefty sums. However, killware has more sinister plans for its potential victims:

  • Households. Internet-connected devices shape our lifestyles nowadays. For instance, many gadgets like coffee makers or heating systems all connect to Wi-Fi. Usually, it means that you can make a cup of coffee without getting up in the morning. However, it could also mean that killware attempts to target your home. Say hackers penetrate your network and gain access to all connected devices. They can manipulate electrical appliances and turn them on without your knowledge. Such actions could pose a threat to your life.
  • National assets and institutions. Killware can threaten a nation’s welfare by compromising its critical infrastructure. Namely, it could compromise hospitals, water supplies, banks, and transportation. In more severe situations, killware could attempt to penetrate chemical systems, aviation, and dams. All of these institutions either protect us or give us comfortable lives. Putting them in jeopardy can be an extreme health hazard.
  • Medical institutions. Killware could paralyze health institutions and prevent them from providing quality care. As we have seen, dozens of hospitals have been hit by hackers. However, in the case of killware, medical institutions face the biggest threat that directly jeopardizes people’s lives.

A minor threat for now

Killware represents the worst-case scenario in cybersecurity. After all, hackers ruthlessly compromise systems for the sake of physically harming people. Undeniably, it is the most frightening premise, worse than anything we have seen before.

However, the bark of killware is worse than its bite, for now. Sadly, we might see more instances of killware in the future. One report by the security firm Gartner predicts more cyber-attacks aimed to harm or murder humans.

And, without a doubt, critical institutions and governments have central roles in defending their citizens. All organizations will need to determine their weaknesses and patch them. Thus, governments and companies will need to have the right technology and security protocols. Only then can we expect hackers’ attempts to scour for bugs and weaknesses to be futile.

What can you do?

The stability and resilience of facilities like plants depend on their management teams. As consumers, we have little control over the under-the-hood security procedures applied there. For one, killware seems to target nations’ infrastructure. However, it does not mean that murderous malware won’t treat individual consumers as targets. Your role is to protect your household, including all gadgets and networks.

Start with your devices, like PCs, laptops, and smartphones. Protect each of them by installing reliable antivirus software. Additionally, never delay software updates as vulnerabilities can help hackers gain access.

Also, numerous IoT devices likely operate in your home. Thus, your network is a crucial access point to protect. Change default network credentials and keep your router firmware updated.

Furthermore, strong encryption (WPA 2 or WPA 3) is the best for warranting safe connections. You can also create a separate network for all IoT devices like coffee makers or home security systems. If one network gets infected, the malware won’t spread to the other one.

Lastly, we highly recommend a VPN for bolstering your internet security even further. There are many reasons to have a VPN at home. But the general idea is that a VPN can protect the valuable information you exchange online. Thus, Atlas VPN encrypts all internet traffic and prevents online entities from intercepting or monitoring your connection. It is crucial to combine the best cybersecurity practices for the best results.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.



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