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Healthcare organizations among many preparing for ransomware attacks

  • May 15 2017, 6:30am EDT

An unrivaled global cyberattack is poised to continue claiming victims Monday as people return to work and turn on their desktop computers, even as hospitals and other facilities gained the upper hand against the first wave.

More than 200,000 computers in at least 150 countries have so far been infected, according to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency. The U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre said new cases of so-called ransomware are possible “at a significant scale.”

“We’ve seen the rise of ransomware becoming the principal threat, I think, but this is something we haven’t seen before—the global reach is unprecedented,” Europol Executive Director Rob Wainwright said on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday” broadcast.

The malware used a technique purportedly stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency. It affected the U.K.’s National Health Service, Russia’s Ministry of Interior, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn rail system, automakers Nissan Motor and Renault SA, logistics giant FedEx, and other company and hospital computer systems in countries from Eastern Europe to the U.S. and Asia.

The hackers used the tool to encrypt files within affected computers, making them inaccessible, and demanded ransom—typically $300 in bitcoin. Russia and Ukraine had a heavy concentration of infections, according to Dutch security company Avast Software BV.

Microsoft President Brad Smith, in a blog post Sunday, said the attack is a “wake-up call” for governments in the U.S. and elsewhere to stop stockpiling tools to exploit digital vulnerabilities. “They need to take a different approach and adhere in cyberspace to the same rules applied to weapons in the physical world,” he said.

About 97 percent of U.K. facilities and doctors disabled by the attack were back to normal operation, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said Saturday after a government meeting. At the height of the attack Friday and early Saturday, 48 organizations in the NHS were affected, and hospitals in London, North West England and Central England urged people with non-emergency conditions to stay away as technicians tried to stop the spread of the malicious software.

The initial attack was stifled when a security researcher disabled a key mechanism used by the worm to spread, but experts said the hackers were likely to mount a second attack because so many users of personal computers with Microsoft operating systems couldn’t or didn’t download a security patch released in March that Microsoft had labeled “critical.”

Microsoft said in a blog post Saturday that it was taking the “highly unusual“ step of providing the patch for older versions of Windows it was otherwise no longer supporting, including Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

While the scale of the attack shows Microsoft needs to strengthen its own capabilities, “there is simply no way for customers to protect themselves against threats unless they update their system,” Smith said in his blog post. “Otherwise, they’re literally fighting the problems of the present with tools from the past.

“This attack is a powerful reminder that information technology basics like keeping computers current and patched are a high responsibility for everyone, and it’s something every top executive should support."

Matt Suiche, founder of United Arab Emirates-based cyber security firm Comae Technologies, said he’s seen a variant on the original malware that still contains a kill-switch mechanism, although future versions could find a way to overcome it. “We are lucky that this logic bug is still present,” Suiche said.

Victims have paid about $30,000 in ransom so far, with the total expected to rise substantially next week, said Tom Robinson, chief operating officer and co-founder of Elliptic Enterprises, a ransomware consultant that works with banks and companies in the U.K., U.S. and Europe. Robinson said he calculated the total based on payments tracked to bitcoin addresses specified in the ransom demands.

A spokesman for Spain’s Telefonica SA said the hack affected some employees at its headquarters, but the phone company is attacked frequently and the impact of Friday’s incident wasn’t major. FedEx said it was “experiencing interference,” the Associated Press reported.

Renault halted production at some factories to stop the virus from spreading, a spokesman said Saturday, while Nissan’s U.K. car plant in Sunderland, in northeast England, was affected without causing any major impact on business, an official said.

In Germany, Deutsche Bahn faced “technical disruptions” on electronic displays at train stations, but travel was unaffected, the company said in a statement on its website. Newspaper reports showed images of a ransomware message on display screens blocking train information.

Russia’s Interior Ministry, with oversight of the police forces, said about “1,000 computers were infected,” which it described as less than 1 percent of the total, according to its website.

Indonesia’s government reported two hospitals in Jakarta were affected.

While any size company could be vulnerable, many large organizations with robust security departments would have prioritized the update that Microsoft released in March and wouldn’t be vulnerable to Friday’s attack, experts suggest.

Ransomware is a particularly stubborn problem because victims are often tricked into allowing the malicious software to run on their computers, and the encryption happens too fast for security software to catch it. Some security expects calculate that ransomware may bring in as much as $1 billion a year in revenue for the attackers.

The attack was apparently halted in the afternoon in the U.K. when a researcher took control of an Internet domain that acted as a kill switch for the worm’s propagation, according to Ars Technica.

“I will confess that I was unaware registering the domain would stop the malware until after I registered it, so initially it was accidental,” wrote the researcher, who uses the Twitter name @MalwareTechBlog. “So long as the domain isn’t revoked, this particular strain will no longer cause harm, but patch your systems ASAP as they will try again.”

There is a high probability that Russian-language cybercriminals were behind the attack, said Aleks Gostev, chief cybersecurity expert for Kaspersky Labs.

“Ransomware is traditionally their topic,” he said. “The geography of attacks that hit post-Soviet Union most also suggests that.”

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