How NSA secrets helped cybercriminals mount a worldwide attack

The Washington Post reports: Computers around the world are suffering an attack from malicious software. The compromised computers have been hit by “ransomware” — software that encrypts the computer’s hard drive so that all the information on it is unavailable, and refuses to release it until a ransom is paid in Bitcoin, an online currency that is difficult to trace. Among the victims are FedEx, Britain’s National Health Service and computers belonging to Russia’s Ministry for the Interior.

Ransomware attacks have happened before. What is unusual is how quickly this attack is compromising large numbers of critical computers. It has been so successful because it has made use of a so-called “zero-day exploit” — a previously unknown flaw in Windows software that makes it easy to take control of vulnerable systems. This zero day exploit became publicly known last month, when it was released as part of a treasure trove of NSA data by the “Shadow Brokers,” a shadowy group of hackers who many believe are associated with Russian intelligence. Criminal hackers appear to have combined this exploit with ransomware tools to mount a worldwide campaign. Here’s what you need to know to understand what happened. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: An “accidental hero” has halted the global spread of the WannaCry ransomware, reportedly by spending a few dollars on registering a domain name hidden in the malware.

The ransomware has wreaked havoc on organizations including FedEx and Telefonica, as well as the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), where operations were cancelled, x-rays, test results and patient records became unavailable and phones did not work.

However, a UK cybersecurity researcher tweeting as @malwaretechblog, with the help of Darien Huss from security firm Proofpoint, found and activated a “kill switch” in the malicious software.

The switch was hardcoded into the malware in case the creator wanted to stop it spreading. This involved a very long nonsensical domain name that the malware makes a request to – just as if it was looking up any website – and if the request comes back and shows that the domain is live, the kill switch takes effect and the malware stops spreading.

“I saw it wasn’t registered and thought, ‘I think I’ll have that’,” he is reported as saying. The purchase cost him $10.69. Immediately, the domain name was registering thousands of connections every second.

“They get the accidental hero award of the day,” said Proofpoint’s Ryan Kalember. “They didn’t realize how much it probably slowed down the spread of this ransomware.”

The time that @malwaretechblog registered the domain was too late to help Europe and Asia, where many organizations were affected. But it gave people in the US more time to develop immunity to the attack by patching their systems before they were infected, said Kalember. [Continue reading…]

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