Malware: Ransomware attack roils the globe
“You know how people always talk about the Big One?” asked Lily Hay Newman in Wired.com. Well, “this looks a whole lot like it.” Last Friday, a global cyberattack began freezing more than 300,000 computers in some 150 countries, wreaking havoc on businesses, governments, and universities. Hospitals in Britain were forced to cancel surgeries and divert ambulances; companies like FedEx, Renault, and Spanish telecom Telefonica had to suspend some operations; and in China, more than 20,000 gas stations owned by the state-run oil company had their payment systems taken offline. The culprit was a strain of malicious software known as ransomware; spread by email, it locks users out of their computers and threatens to destroy their data unless a ransom is paid. In this case, a virus dubbed “WannaCry” exploited a bug in outdated versions of Microsoft Windows and demanded $300 in the cryptocurrency bitcoin. The exploit appears to come from a stolen cache of cyberweapons developed by the National Security Agency and leaked online by hackers last month. Digital clues, security experts say, point to North Korea as a possible source of the attacks.
The attacks would have been far worse if it hadn’t been for a 22-year-old security researcher in Britain who spotted a “kill switch” embedded in WannaCry’s code, said Tim Bradshaw in the Financial Times. That, along with an emergency software fix released by Microsoft, slowed the virus’ spread. But that victory “could be shortlived.” Ransomware attacks have increased 50 percent in the past year alone, costing businesses upward of $1 billion. Experts say the best way to protect yourself is to never click on attachments from an unfamiliar email, and “to back up your data frequently so that you can go back to a recent archive in the event of an attack.”
We dodged a bullet with this one—the next major cyberattack “may not have a convenient kill switch,” said Zeynep Tufekci in The New York Times. Microsoft deserves part of the blame, because it decided in recent years to stop issuing security patches for outdated Windows versions unless customers paid for pricey “custom” support. It was the NSA that laid the groundwork for this cyberweapon, said Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg.com, by creating a Windows exploit that wound up in the hands of criminals. That hacking tool was clearly designed to target antiquated civilian computer systems that run utilities like railroads and power plants. But while it may be tempting for the NSA to have the power to “shut down an adversary’s power grid or hospital system,” that’s “as unethical as shooting or torturing the civilians in war.” Governments need to be more responsible about the digital weapons they create. Last week’s attack shows that “if they have a piece of malware, it’s highly likely that even small-time criminals will have it, too.” ■