WannCry a symptom of much deeper problems

Bob Sullivan

For a long time, many health care providers have been worried about the wrong thing — compliance rather than patient safety.  Last week, we see the most frightening example yet of the devastating consequences.

So far, one of the worst cyberattacks in recent memory has hit computers in 150 countries, Europol said, with WannaCry encrypting files and demanding ransom from victims. The software can run in 27 different language, according to U.S. cybersecurity officials.

“Our emergency surgeries are running doors open, we can access our software but ransomware window pops up every 20-30 seconds so we are slow,” wrote @fendifille in a post about the attack from a U.K. medical center. 

A feared second spike of attacks from the WannaCry ransomware virus didn’t materialize on Monday, but there’s still plenty to worry about. New variants of the malware have been released, others are most certainly under development, and a Twitter account logging ransom payments shows victims are indeed coughing up roughly $300 in bitcoins to recover their files. As of Monday morning, payments totaled just over $50,000 — tiny compared to the damage caused, but a tidy sum for the criminals. Meanwhile, the required ransom jumped to $600 this week, according to security firm F-Secure.

A confluence of events led to discovery of and then spread of the devastating malware. The technology behind WannaCry was actually developed by the National Security Agency in the U.S., then stolen by hackers using the moniker Shadow Crew. It attacks unpatched Microsoft Windows computers. Most modern Windows PCs were automatically updated to prevent the exploit, but older computers — those running Windows XP, for example — are no longer routinely supported by Microsoft. Many of those were unpatched, and an easy mark for WannaCry.

U.K. hospitals had thousands of these older machines; that’s why the virus hit hard there. I’ve reported earlier on why health care providers often have older computers. Many run single tasks, and are rarely updated, or even noticed, by IT staff.

Spread of the malware slowed for a variety of reasons during the weekend (including this heroic effect by a security researcher). But as workers returned Monday morning, a fresh round of infections were possible, authorities have warned.

“It is important to understand that the way these attacks work means that compromises of machines and networks that have already occurred may not yet have been detected, and that existing infections from the malware can spread within networks,” wrote the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre. “This means that as a new working week begins it is likely, in the UK and elsewhere, that further cases of ransomware may come to light, possibly at a significant scale.”

Microsoft has now offered security patches for older Windows machines, and technicians have spent the weekend racing to updates those computers.

The real legacy of WannCry will be the malware’s government-based origins. During the weekend, Microsoft called out the NSA for researching and hiding vulnerabilities, comparing this incident to theft of a U.S. missile

“This attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem. This is an emerging pattern in 2017,” chief counsel Brad Smith wrote in a blog post. “We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world. Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage. An equivalent scenario with conventional weapons would be the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen.”

Does NSA bug hunting (and hoarding) make the world safer, or more dangerous?  WannaCry certainly hints at the answer.


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