NSA exploit behind global ransomware attack
- By Sean D. Carberry
- May 12, 2017
Hospitals in the U.K. are confronting a new epidemic -- but they aren’t fighting a bacteria or biological pathogen. Instead, they are battling malicious cyber code.
The so-called “WannaCry” ransomware is infecting and locking up tens of thousands of computers in dozens of countries.
According to security researchers, the WannaCry exploit is derived from a National Security Agency tool that was stolen and leaked by the Shadow Brokers back in April. It takes advantage of a Microsoft vulnerability for which the software giant issued a patch on March 14. Unpatched systems remained vulnerable to the threat.
“The good news is there was a patch released in March," former NSA executive Curtis Dukes said. "The bad news is, unfortunately, there are many endpoints that have not been patched and protected.”
Dukes, who is now executive vice president at the Center for Internet Security, told FCW that this kind of attack is a known tactic for adversaries and that he can’t stress enough the urgency of knowing what’s on your network and keeping endpoints properly patched and configured.
The U.K.’s National Health Service has confirmed that at least 16 hospitals have been affected by the ransomware, and there are reports on social media that the attack has led to surgeries being cancelled and ambulances being turned away.
“This is big,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in an email statement.
“Around the world, doctors and nurses are scrambling to treat patients without their digital records or prescription dosages, ambulances are being rerouted, and millions of people’s data is potentially exposed,” he said. “Cybersecurity isn’t a hypothetical problem -- today shows it can be life or death. We’ll likely look back at this as a watershed moment.”
“This event should serve as a global wakeup call,” said Rich Barger, Splunk’s director of threat research, in an email statement. “The means of delivery and the delivered effect is unprecedented.”
“Ransomware is arguably the #1 method of cyberattack in 2017, and this attack demonstrates the paramount need for critical enterprises to have a ransomware playbook in place for when they are attacked,” Barger added.
Brian Vecci, technical evangelist for Varonis, characterized the attack as a “nasty exploit” that can take down entire networks.
“While this attack encrypts files just like any other ransomware campaign, the difference here is that the cybercriminals are leveraging the hacking tools from the NSA data leak to spread the infection laterally to other machines on the network,” he said. “Once on a shared server, all of the data is at risk.”
The attack comes the day after President Donald Trump signed a long-awaited cybersecurity executive order that prioritizes modernization of federal IT systems and protection of critical infrastructure in the U.S.
One provision of the EO directs federal agencies to report on known but unmitigated vulnerabilities, which is at the heart of the WannaCry exploit attacking computers that have not been patched.
“The executive order’s prioritization of assessing and mitigating known vulnerabilities is a good step forward,” Tenable Network Security CEO Amit Yoran said in a statement. “The importance of maintaining a robust and well-trained cybersecurity workforce to meet these challenges should also remain a topic for discussion.”
Keith Lowry, former chief of staff at the Department of Defense and a senior vice president at Nuix, said the EO falls short on the human dimension.
“All cybersecurity threats begin and end with humans,” he said. “All cybersecurity events can be categorized into three main aspects: people, data, and process -- including IT infrastructure. Leaving out any one of these three dimensions simply creates the illusion of protection.”
Lowry also criticized the order for failing to put one single organization in charge of federal cybersecurity. “This needs to be elevated to a single agency head to avoid infighting, confusion and Washington gridlock,” he said.
Other experts and former officials have generally praised the EO, but have warned that it is long on reports and studies, and not as long on implementation plans.
“This order is more of a plan for a plan, because an EO can only direct federal agencies to do things they can already do within the law,” said former White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel.
“We’ll have to wait to see how well this administration can implement its stated goals for cybersecurity,” said Information Technology and Information Foundation vice president Daniel Castro. “Notably, this order leans heavily on the government for ideas and implementation rather than a public-private partnership approach.”
Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.