Cyber extortion campaign hits dozens of countries, top firms

A cyberattack that is forcing computer owners to pay hundreds of dollars in ransom to unlock their files has hit almost every corner of the world. (Shutterstock)

A global cyberattack leveraging hacking tools widely believed by security researchers to have been developed by the US National Security Agency disrupted Britain’s health system and infected computers in dozens of other countries on Friday.

British hospitals and clinics were forced to turn away patients because their computers were infected by “ransomware” that rapidly spread across the globe, demanding payments of as much as $600 to restore access and scrambling data.

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Russia ’s Interior Ministry said it has come under cyberattack. Agency spokeswoman Irina Volk said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Friday ’s cyberattacks hit about 1,000 computers. She said the ministry ’s servers haven’t been affected.

Volk added that ministry experts are now working to recover the system and do necessary security updates.

Russian media also said that the Investigative Committee, the nation ’s top criminal investigation agency, also has been targeted. The committee denied the reports.

Megafon, a top Russian mobile operator, also said it has come under cyberattacks that appeared similar to those that crippled UK hospitals on Friday. 

Fedex affected 

Leading international shipper FedEx Corp was among the companies whose Microsoft Corp Windows systems were affected.

“Like many other companies, FedEx is experiencing interference with some of our Windows-based systems caused by malware,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are implementing remediation steps as quickly as possible.”

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Telecommunications company Telefonica was among many targets in Spain, though it said the attack was limited to some computers on an internal network and had not affected clients or services. Portugal Telecom and Telefonica Argentina both said they were also targeted in the attacks.

Private security firms identified the ransomware as a new variant of “WannaCry” that had the ability to automatically spread across large networks by exploiting a known bug in Microsoft's Windows operating system.

“Once it gets in and starts moving across the infrastructure, there is no way to stop it,” said Adam Meyers, a researcher with cyber security firm CrowdStrike.

The hackers, who have not come forward to claim responsibility or otherwise been identified, likely made it a “worm,” or self spreading malware, by exploiting a piece of NSA code known as “Eternal Blue” that was released last month by a group known as the Shadow Brokers, researchers with several private cyber security firms said.

“This is one of the largest global ransomware attacks the cyber community has ever seen,” said Rich Barger, director of threat research with Splunk, one of the firms that linked WannaCry to the NSA.

The Shadow Brokers released Eternal Blue as part of a trove of hacking tools that they said belonged to the US spy agency.

Microsoft on Friday said it was pushing out automatic Windows updates to defend clients from WannaCry. It issued a patch on March 14 to protect them from Eternal Blue.

“Today our engineers added detection and protection against new malicious software known as Ransom:Win32.WannaCrypt,” a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement. It said the company was working with its customers to provide additional assistance. 

Sensitive timing 

The spread of the ransomware capped a week of cyber turmoil in Europe that kicked off a week earlier when hackers posted a huge trove of campaign documents tied to French candidate Emmanuel Macron just 1-1/2 days before a run-off vote in which he was elected as the new president of France.

On Wednesday hackers disrupted the websites of several French media companies and aerospace giant Airbus.

The hack also happened four weeks before a British parliamentary election in which national security and the management of the state-run National Health Service (NHS) are important campaign themes.

Authorities in Britain have been braced for possible cyberattacks in the run-up to the vote, as happened during last year’s US election and on the eve of this month's presidential vote in France.

But those attacks - blamed on Russia, which has repeatedly denied them - followed an entirely different modus operandi involving penetrating the accounts of individuals and political organizations and then releasing hacked material online.

On Friday, around 1,000 computers at the Russian Interior Ministry were affected by the cyberattack, a spokeswoman for the ministry told Interfax. 

New breed of ransomware 

Although cyber extortion cases have been rising for several years, they have to date affected small-to-mid sized organizations, disrupting services provided by hospitals, police departments, public transportation systems and utilities in the United States and Europe.

“Seeing a large telco like Telefonica get hit is going to get everybody worried. Now ransomware is affecting larger companies with more sophisticated security operations,” Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer with cyber security firm Veracode, said.

The news is also likely to embolden cyber extortionists when selecting targets, Chris Camacho, chief strategy officer with cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint, said.

“Now that the cyber criminals know they can hit the big guys, they will start to target big corporations. And some of them may not be well prepared for such attacks,” Camacho said.

In Spain, some big firms took pre-emptive steps to thwart ransomware attacks following a warning from Spain's National Cryptology Centre of “a massive ransomware attack.”

Iberdrola and Gas Natural, along with Vodafone's unit in Spain, asked staff to turn off computers or cut off internet access in case they had been compromised, representatives from the firms said.

In Spain, the attacks did not disrupt the provision of services or networks operations of the victims, the government said in a statement.
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:50 - GMT 06:50
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