A quickly spreading ransomware attack is hitting countries across the world including France, Russia, Spain, Ukraine and the United States, just weeks after a ransomware attack known as WannaCry.
What We Know
• Several private companies have confirmed that they were struck by the attack, including the American pharmaceutical giant Merck, the Danish shipping company AP Moller-Maersk, and the British advertising firm WPP. The French multinational Saint-Gobain and a unit of the bank BNP Paribas, also said they had been hit, as did the Russian steel, mining and oil companies Evraz and Rosneft.
• Photographs and videos of computers affected by the attack show a message of red text on a black screen: “Oops, your important files have been encrypted. If you see this text then your files are no longer accessible because they have been encrypted. Perhaps you are busy looking to recover your files but don’t waste your time.”
• Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity firm based in Moscow, reported that about 2,000 computer systems had been affected by the new ransomware.
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• Microsoft said the attack had originated in Ukraine, where hackers first targeted M.E.Doc, a tax-accounting software company, and the ransomware soon spread to at least 64 countries worldwide. ESET, a Slovakia-based cybersecurity company, also said the first known infection was through M.E.Doc..
• M.E.Doc denied that it was patient zero. “At the time of updating the program, the system could not be infected with the virus directly from the update file,” the company said in a Facebook post, though an earlier message confirmed that its systems had been compromised.
• Cybersecurity researchers first called the new ransomware attack Petya, as it was similar to a ransomware strain known by that name that was first reported by Kasperksy in March 2016. But Kaspersky later said that its investigation into the new attack found that it was a type of ransomware that had never been seen before.
• Symantec, a Silicon Valley cybersecurity firm, confirmed that the ransomware was infecting computers through at least one exploit, or vulnerability to computer systems, known as Eternal Blue.
• Eternal Blue was leaked online last April by a mysterious group of hackers known as the Shadow Brokers, who have previously released hacking tools used by the National Security Agency. That vulnerability was used in May to spread the WannaCry ransomware, which affected hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries.
• ESET and several other cybersecurity companies have identified at least one other exploit used in the attack known as PsExec, which takes advantage of a single computer that has not been updated with the latest software in a network to spread infections by looking for — and using — administrative credentials. By using PsExec, the ransomware continued spreading across systems that had been updated, or patched, after the WannaCry outbreak last month.
• Several cybersecurity researchers have identified a Bitcoin address to which the attackers are demanding a payment of $300 from their victims. At least some appear to be paying the ransom, even though the email address used by the attackers has been shut down. That removes the possibility that the attackers could restore a victim’s access to their computer networks, even once ransom is paid. So far, more than $9,000 in ransom had been paid, security experts say.
What We Don’t Know
• Who is behind the ransomware attack. The original Petya ransomware was developed and used by cybercriminals, and variations have been sold through dark web trading sites, which are accessible only by using browsers that mask a user’s identity, making it difficult for cybersecurity researchers to track.
• The motives for the attack. Cybersecurity researchers ask why, if the goal was to force victims to pay ransom, more care was not taken to protect the email address through which attackers could communicate with their victims, or to provide multiple avenues for payment.
• How much bigger this attack will get. Ukraine and Russia are most affected, and despite some reports across Asia, the region has mostly sidestepped the widespread problems felt in Europe and the United States. Cybersecurity researchers say that like WannaCry, the ransomware infects computers using vulnerabilities in the central nerve of a computer, called a kernel, making it difficult for antivirus firms to detect. It also has the ability to take advantage of a single unpatched computer on a network to infect computers across a vast network, meaning that even systems that were updated after WannaCry could potentially become vulnerable again.
What Is Ransomware?
• Ransomware is one of the most popular forms of online attack today. It typically begins with attackers sending their victims email that includes a link or a file that appears innocuous but contains dangerous malware.
• Once a victim clicks on the link or opens the attachment, the computer becomes infected. The program encrypts the computer, essentially locking the user out of files, folders and drives on that computer. In some cases, the entire network the computer is connected to can become infected.
• The victim then receives a message demanding payment in exchange for attackers unlocking the system. The payment is usually requested in Bitcoin, a form of digital currency.