As a malware attack that has crippled the patient care delivery at the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and affected organizations in nearly 100 countries worldwide beginning early Friday, May12, continued to damage diverse operations globally, The Washington Post reported on Saturday morning on a fortuitous development that might possibly change the landscape around the ransomware, known variously as Wanna Decryptor 2.0, Wanna Cry, Wanna Detector, and under other names.
The Post’s Rick Noack, in a report published at 9:15 AM eastern time U.S. on Saturday morning, wrote that, “As the world began Friday to understand the dimensions of “Wanna Decryptor 2.0,” the ransomware that has crippled computers worldwide, a vacationing British cybersecurity researcher was already several steps ahead. About 3 p.m. Eastern [on Friday, May 12], the specialist with U.S. cybersecurity enterprise Kryptos Logic bought an unusually long and nonsensical domain name ending with “gwea.com.” The 22-year-old says he paid $10.69, but his purchase might have saved companies and governmental institutions around the world billions of dollars. By purchasing the domain name and registering a website,” Noack wrote, “the cybersecurity researcher claims that he activated a kill switch. It immediately slowed the spread of the malware and could ultimately stop its current version, cybersecurity experts said Saturday. Hidden in the malware, the kill switch probably was not supposed to be activated anytime soon. Perhaps it was never supposed to be there in the first place.”
“What it had not counted on was a researcher doing the world a service and taking advantage of a flaw that now seemed glaringly obvious in hindsight,” Robert McArdle, a research director with Tokyo-based cybersecurity company Trend Micro,” told the Post.
“When Darien Huss, a researcher with U.S. cybersecurity company Proofpoint, came across the strange domain in the code Friday evening, he immediately flagged his discovery on social media,” Noack wrote. “Alerted by the finding, a 22-year-old unidentified researcher who tweets using the handle @MalwareTechBlog decided to take action, without knowing what impact registering the domain would have. While spreading to computers, the malware made requests to the unregistered website ending with ‘gwea.com.’ Until about 3 p.m. Friday, all of those requests went unanswered — probably triggering the activation of the malware.”
This series of developments could upend the global situation around the Wanna Decryptor ransomware, as British, U.S. and other national governments, and a host of non-governmental entities, work to try to stop the damage that the ransomware is causing globally. Among those working collaboratively together are the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. Following a brief e-mail alert to U.S. healthcare organizations at 11:59 PM on Friday, ONC released further information at 9:43 AM eastern time on Saturday morning, directing individuals and organizations to the informational resources at the website of the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or US-CERT, and offering general advice on avoiding malware. ONC also asked the question, “What is HHS doing to secure our systems?” and answered the question with the following bullet-pointed information:
> HHS Office of the Chief Information Officer implemented enterprise block across all OpDivs and StaffDivs and is ensuring all patching is up to date.
> HHS is working with Department of Homeland Security to scan HHS’ CIDR IP addresses through the DHS NCATS program to identify RDP and SMB
> HHS notified VA and DHA and shared cyber threat information.
> HHS is coordinating with National Health Service (England) and UK-CERT. HHS through its law enforcement and intelligence resources with the Office of Inspector General and Office of Security and Strategic Information, have ongoing communications and are sharing and exchanging information with other key partners including the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile, a news report published early Saturday morning, U.S. eastern time, in The Independent of London, and written by Aatif Suleyman, noted that “The ransomware is taking advantage of EternalBlue, an exploit spies used to secretly break into Windows machines, according to the Register. Microsoft patched the issue earlier this year, but only on the version of the Windows operating system that it continues to support.”
Crucially, Suleyman noted in his report, “Up to 90 per cent of NHS computers still run Windows XP, according to a report published in the BMJ earlier this week. The operating system was released in 2001, and Microsoft cut support for it in 2014. 'People can continue to use the software, but doing so comes with enormous risks,' the report went on, quoting David Emm, the principal security researcher at Kaspersky, as saying that 'Using XP is particularly bad because it’s no longer supported and there’s no way to patch it.'”
Attack continues to spread damage worldwide
As of midday Saturday, U.S. time, the Wanna Decryptor 2.0 ransomware continued its worldwide damage. A report published online in the Madrid daily El País at 11:28 eastern U.S. time (5:28 PM Spanish time) noted that the information security company Avast was counting 99 nations that have been affected so far by the ransomware attack. Among the entities affected, according to El País: the French automaker Renault, which has suspended operations at an unspecified number of plants, after its Sandouville plant in Normandy had its operations affected; hundreds of computers in the Madrid offices of La Telefónica, Spain’s government-run telephone and telecommunications utility; as well as the private companies KPMG, BBVA, Banco Santander, and Iberdrola, in Spain. And a report in the Paris daily Libération on Saturday morning at 11:11 eastern U.S. time quoted a spokesperson at Revoz, Renault’s Slovenian subsidiary, as confirming that the computers at its plant in Novo Mesto had been infected, forcing production stoppage there. A report Saturday morning in the Frankfurt daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted that computers of the German national railway system Deutsche Bahn had been hit by the virus, but quoted a Deutsche Bahn spokesperson as saying that “The train service has not been compromised. There are no restrictions in the remote and local transport. At the train station there are technical faults in the digital display boards,” but that all transportation service is proceeding unimpeded.
Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Mark Scott, in a report published online at 7:50 AM eastern time on Saturday, wrote that “While most cyberattacks are inherently global, this one, experts say, is more virulent than most. Security firms said it had spread to all corners of the globe, with Russia hit the worst, followed by Ukraine, India and Taiwan, said Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity firm. The attack,” Scott wrote,” is believed to be the first in which such a cyberweapon developed by the N.S.A. has been used by cybercriminals against computer users around the globe. While American companies like FedEx said they had also been hit,” he added, “experts said that computer users in the United States had so far been less affected than others because a British cybersecurity researcher inadvertently stopped the ransomware from spreading,” referring to the Kryptos Logic IT specialist.
“The 22-year-old British researcher, whose Twitter handle is @MalwareTechBlog and who confirmed his involvement but insisted on anonymity because he did not want the public scrutiny,” Scott wrote, “found the kill switch’s domain name—a long and complicated set of letters. Realizing that the name was not yet registered, he bought the name himself. When the site went live, the attack stopped spreading, much to the researcher’s surprise.” Scott quoted Matthieu Suiche, founder of Comae Technologies, a cybersecurity company based in the United Arab Emirates, as saying that “The kill switch is why the U.S. hasn’t been touched so far. But it’s only temporary,” Suiche added. “All the attackers would have to do is create a variant of the hack with a different domain name. I would expect them to do that.”
Meanwhile, the Times report noted, IT professionals all over the world have become involved in the race to stop the spread of the ransomware. “In Taiwan,” Scott wrote, “threads soon began popping up on the popular online message board PTT with users’ tales of how their computers had been infected and tips on how to avoid the virus. Apple Daily, a local tabloid, reported suspicions that at least some of the perpetrators may be from China. The newspaper compared the attackers’ clumsy English used in infection notices with the fluent, and even slightly playful, messages that appeared on computers with Chinese-language operating systems. In China, the virus hit the computer networks of both companies and universities, according to the state-run news media. News about the attack began trending on Chinese social media on Saturday, though most attention was focused on university networks, where there were concerns about students losing access to their academic work.”
The Times report noted that “The attack spread like wildfire in Europe, including to companies like... Telefónica, a Spanish telecommunications firm, though no major service problems had been reported across the region’s transportation or telecommunications networks.” What’s more, “Nissan, the Japanese auto giant, said its manufacturing center in Sunderland in the north of England had been affected, though a spokesman declined to comment on whether the company’s production had been stopped.”
Healthcare Informatics will continue to update readers on this developing story.