Cyberattack that struck firms across world

Online records showed that 30 victims had paid the ransom, although it was not clear whether they had regained access to their files.

Cyberattack that struck firms across world
Computer systems from Ukraine to the United States were struck Tuesday in an international cyberattack that was similar to a recent assault that crippled tens of thousands of machines worldwide.

In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, ATMs stopped working. About 80 miles away, workers were forced to manually monitor radiation at the old Chernobyl nuclear plant when their computers failed. And tech managers at companies around the world, from Maersk, the Danish shipping conglomerate, to Merck, the drug giant in the United States, were scrambling to respond. Even an Australian factory for chocolate giant Cadbury was affected.

It was unclear who was behind this cyberattack, and the extent of its effect was still hard to gauge on Tuesday. It started as an attack on Ukrainian government and business computer systems — an assault that appeared to have been intended to hit the day before a holiday marking the adoption in 1996 of Ukraine’s first constitution after its break from the Soviet Union. The attack spread from there, causing collateral damage around the world.

The outbreak was the latest and perhaps the most sophisticated in a series of attacks making use of dozens of hacking tools that were stolen from the National Security Agency and leaked online in April by a group called the Shadow Brokers.

Like the WannaCry attacks in May, the latest global hacking took control of computers and demanded digital ransom from their owners to regain access. The new attack used the same NSA hacking tool, Eternal Blue, that was used in the WannaCry episode, as well as two other methods to promote its spread, according to researchers at the computer security company Symantec.

The NSA has not acknowledged its tools were used in WannaCry or other attacks. But computer security specialists are demanding that the agency help the rest of the world defend against the weapons it created.

“The NSA needs to take a leadership role in working closely with security and operating system platform vendors such as Apple and Microsoft to address the plague that they’ve unleashed,” said Golan Ben-Oni, the global chief information officer at IDT, a Newark, New Jersey-based conglomerate hit by a separate attack in April that used the agency’s hacking tools. Ben-Oni warned federal officials that more serious attacks were probably on the horizon.

The vulnerability in Windows software used by Eternal Blue was patched by Microsoft in March, but as the WannaCry attacks demons­trated, hundreds of thousands of groups around the world failed to properly install the fix. “Just because you roll out a patch doesn’t mean it’ll be put in place quickly,” said Carl Herberger, vice president of security at Radware. “The more bureaucratic an organisation is, the higher chance it won’t have updated its software.”

Because the ransomware used at least two other ways to spread on Tuesday — including stealing victims’ credentials — even those who used the Microsoft patch could be vulnerable and targets for later attacks, according to researchers at F-Secure, a Finnish cybersecurity firm, and others. A Microsoft spokesman said the company’s latest anti-virus software should protect against the attack.

The Ukrainian government said several of its ministries, local banks and metro systems had been affected. A number of other European companies, including Rosneft, the Russian ener­gy giant; Saint-Gobain, the French construction materials company; and WPP, the British adver­tising agency, also said they had been targeted.

Ukrainian officials pointed a finger at Russia on Tuesday, although Russian companies were also affected. Home Credit bank, one of Russia’s top 50 lenders, was paralysed, with all of its offices closed, according to the RBC news website. The attack also affected Evraz, a steel manufacturing and mining company that employs about 80,000 people, the RBC website reported.

In the United States, DLA Piper, the multinational law firm, also reported being hit. Hospitals in Pennsylvania were being forced to cancel operations after the attack hit computers at Heritage Valley Health Systems and its hospitals in Beaver and Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and satellite locations across the state.

The ransomware also hurt Australian branches of international companies. DLA Piper’s Australian offices warned clients that they were dealing with a “serious global cyber incident” and had disabled email as a precautionary measure. Local news reports said that in Hobart, Tasmania, on Tuesday evening, computers in a Cadbury chocolate factory, owned by Mondelez International, had displayed ransomware messages that demanded $300 in bitcoins.

Qantas Airways’ booking system failed for a time Tuesday, but the company said the breakdown was due to an unrelated hardware issue. The Australian government has urged companies to install security updates and isolate any infected computers from their networks. “This ransomware attack is a wake-up call to all Australian businesses to regularly back up their data and install the latest security patches,” said Dan Tehan, the cybersecurity minister. “We are aware of the situation and monitoring it closely.”

Hard to trace
Computer specialists said the ransomware was very similar to a virus that emerged in 2015 called Petya. Petya means “Little Peter,” in Russian, leading some to speculate the name referred to Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 symphony “Peter and the Wolf,” about a boy who captures a wolf.

Reports that the computer virus was a variant of Petya suggest the attackers will be hard to trace. Petya was for sale on the so-called dark web, where its creators made the ransomware available as “ransomware as a service” — a play on Silicon Valley terminology for delivering software over the internet, according to the security firm Avast Threat Labs.

That means anyone could launch the ransomware with the click of a button, encrypt someone’s systems and demand a ransom to unlock it. If the victim pays, the authors of the Petya ransomware, who call themselves Janus Cybercrime Solutions, get a cut of the payment. That distribution method means that pinning down the people responsible for Tuesday’s attack could be difficult.

The attack is “an improved and more lethal version of WannaCry,” said Matthieu Suiche, a security researcher who helped contain the spread of the WannaCry ransomware when he created a kill switch that stopped the attacks. In just the past seven days, Suiche noted, WannaCry had tried to hit an additional 80,000 organisations but was prevented from executing attack code because of the kill switch. Petya does not have a kill switch.

Petya also encrypts and locks entire hard drives whereas the earlier ransomware attacks locked only individual files, said Chris Hinkley, a researcher at the security firm Armor.

The hackers behind Petya demanded $300 worth of the cybercurrency bitcoin to unlock victims’ machines. By Tuesday afternoon, online records showed that 30 victims had paid the ransom, although it was not clear whether they had regained access to their files. Other victims may be out of luck, after Posteo, the German email service provider, shut down the hackers’ email account.

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