Com­put­ers crip­pled in world­wide cy­ber­at­tack


Dozens of coun­tries were hit with a huge cy­berex­tor­tion at­tack Fri­day that locked up com­put­ers and held users’ files for ran­som at a mul­ti­tude of hos­pi­tals, com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

It was be­lieved to the big­gest at­tack of its kind ever recorded.

The ma­li­cious soft­ware be­hind the on­slaught ap­peared to ex­ploit a vul­ner­a­bil­ity in Mi­crosoft Win­dows that was sup­pos­edly iden­ti­fied by the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency for its own in­tel­li­gence-gather­ing pur­poses and was later leaked to the In­ter­net.

Bri­tain’s na­tional health ser­vice fell vic­tim, its hos­pi­tals forced to close wards and emer­gency rooms and turn away pa­tients.

Rus­sia ap­peared to be the hard­est hit, ac­cord­ing to se­cu­rity ex­perts, with the coun­try’s In­te­rior Min­istry con­firm­ing it was struck.

All told, sev­eral cy­ber­se­cu­rity firms said they had iden­ti­fied the ma­li­cious soft­ware in up­wards of 60 coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States — though its ef­fects in the U.S. did not ap­pear to be wide­spread, at least in the ini­tial hours.

Com­put­ers were in­fected with what is known as “ran­somware” — soft­ware that freezes up a ma­chine and flashes a mes­sage de­mand­ing pay­ment to re­lease the user’s data.

Mikko Hyp­po­nen, chief re­search of­fi­cer at the Helsinki-based cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pany F-Se­cure, called it “the big­gest ran­somware out­break in his­tory.”

Se­cu­rity ex­perts said the at­tack ap­peared to be caused by a self-repli­cat­ing piece of soft­ware that en­ters com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions when em­ploy­ees click on email at­tach­ments, then spreads quickly in­ter­nally from com­puter to com­puter when em­ploy­ees share doc­u­ments and other files.

Its ran­som de­mands start at $300 and in­crease af­ter two hours to $400, $500 and then $600, said Kurt Baum­gart­ner, a se­cu­rity re­searcher at Kasper­sky Lab.

Chris Wysopal of the soft­ware se­cu­rity firm Ver­a­code said crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions were prob­a­bly be­hind the at­tack, given how quickly the mal­ware spread.

“For so many or­ga­ni­za­tions in the same day to be hit, this is un­prece­dented,” Wysopal said.

The se­cu­rity holes it ex­ploits were dis­closed sev­eral weeks ago by TheShad­owBro­kers, a mys­te­ri­ous group that has pub­lished what it says are hack­ing tools used by the NSA as part of its in­tel­li­gence-gather­ing.

Shortly af­ter that dis­clo­sure, Mi­crosoft an­nounced it had al­ready is­sued soft­ware “patches” for those holes. But many com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als haven’t in­stalled the fixes yet or are us­ing older ver­sions of Win­dows that Mi­crosoft no longer sup­ports and didn’t fix.

By Kasper­sky Lab’s count, the mal­ware struck at least 74 coun­tries.

In ad­di­tion to Rus­sia, the big­gest tar­gets ap­peared to be Ukraine and In­dia, na­tions where it is com­mon to find older, un­patched ver­sions of Win­dows in use, ac­cord­ing to the se­cu­rity firm.

Hos­pi­tals across Bri­tain found them­selves with­out ac­cess to their com­put­ers or phone sys­tems.

Many can­celled all rou­tine pro­ce­dures and asked pa­tients not to come to the hos­pi­tal un­less it was an emer­gency.

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