Ransomware Cyber Attack: Hackers Leverage Stolen NSA Tool to Wreak Havoc Worldwide

 

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Ransomware WannaCry leveraged hacking tools developed by NSA
  • It exploits a known bug in Windows
  • Researchers have observed 57,000 infections in 99 countries

A global cyber attack leveraging hacking tools widely believed by researchers to have been developed by the US National Security Agency hit international shipper FedEx, disrupted Britain’s health system and infected computers in nearly 100 countries on Friday. Cyber extortionists tricked victims into opening malicious malware attachments to spam emails that appeared to contain invoices, job offers, security warnings and other legitimate files.

Private security firms identified the ransomware as a new variant of WannaCry (also known as WanaCrypt0r and WCry) that had the ability to automatically spread across large networks by exploiting a known bug (MS17-010) in Microsoft’s Windows operating system. The ransomware encrypted data on the computers, demanding payments of $300 to $600 to restore access. Security researchers said they observed some victims paying via the digital currency Bitcoin, though they did not know what percent had given in to the extortionists.

Researchers with security software maker Avast said they had observed 57,000 infections in 99 countries with Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan the top targets.

The most disruptive attacks were reported in Britain, where hospitals and clinics were forced to turn away patients after losing access to computers.

International shipper FedEx Corp said some of its Windows computers were also infected. “We are implementing remediation steps as quickly as possible,” it said in a statement.Ransomware Cyber Attack: Hackers Leverage Stolen NSA Tool to Wreak Havoc Worldwide

Still, only a small number of US-headquartered organizations were hit because the hackers appear to have begun the campaign by targeting organizations in Europe, said Vikram Thakur, research manager with security software maker Symantec.

By the time they turned their attention to the United States, spam filters had identified the new threat and flagged the ransomware-laden emails as malicious, Thakur said.

The US Department of Homeland Security said late on Friday that it was aware of reports of the ransomware, was sharing information with domestic and foreign partners and was ready to lend technical support.

Telecommunications company Telefonica was among many targets in Spain, though it said the attack was limited to some computers on an internal network and had not affected clients or services. Portugal Telecom and Telefonica Argentina both said they were also targeted.

“Once it gets in and starts moving across the infrastructure, there is no way to stop it,” said Adam Meyers, a researcher with cyber security firm CrowdStrike.

The hackers, who have not come forward to claim responsibility or otherwise been identified, likely made it a “worm,” or self spreading malware, by exploiting a piece of NSA code known as “Eternal Blue” that was released last month by a group known as the Shadow Brokers, researchers with several private cyber security firms said.

“This is one of the largest global ransomware attacks the cyber community has ever seen,” said Rich Barger, director of threat research with Splunk, one of the firms that linked WannaCry to the NSA.

The Shadow Brokers released Eternal Blue as part of a trove of hacking tools that they said belonged to the US spy agency.

Microsoft on Friday said it was pushing out automatic Windows updates to defend clients from WannaCry. It issued a patch on March 14 to protect them from Eternal Blue.

“Today our engineers added detection and protection against new malicious software known as Ransom:Win32.WannaCrypt,” Microsoft said in a statement. It said the company was working with its customers to provide additional assistance.

Sensitive timing
The spread of the ransomware capped a week of cyber turmoil in Europe that kicked off a week earlier when hackers posted a huge trove of campaign documents tied to French candidate Emmanuel Macron just 1-1/2 days before a run-off vote in which he was elected as the new president of France.

On Wednesday, hackers disputed the websites of several French media companies and aerospace giant Airbus .Also, the hack happened four weeks before a British parliamentary election in which national security and the management of the state-run National Health Service (NHS) are important campaign themes.

Authorities in Britain have been braced for possible cyberattacks in the run-up to the vote, as happened during last year’s US election and on the eve of this month’s presidential vote in France.

But those attacks – blamed on Russia, which has repeatedly denied them – followed an entirely different modus operandi involving penetrating the accounts of individuals and political organizations and then releasing hacked material online.

On Friday, Russia’s interior and emergencies ministries, as well as the country’s biggest bank, Sberbank , said they were targeted. The interior ministry said on its website that around 1,000 computers had been infected but it had localized the virus.

The emergencies ministry told Russian news agencies it had repelled the cyberattacks while Sberbank said its cyber security systems had prevented viruses from entering its systems.

New breed of ransomware
Although cyber extortion cases have been rising for several years, they have to date affected small-to-mid sized organizations, disrupting services provided by hospitals, police departments, public transportation systems and utilities in the United States and Europe.

“Seeing a large telco like Telefonica get hit is going to get everybody worried. Now ransomware is affecting larger companies with more sophisticated security operations,” Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer with cyber security firm Veracode, said.

The news is also likely to embolden cyber extortionists when selecting targets, Chris Camacho, chief strategy officer with cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint, said.

“Now that the cyber criminals know they can hit the big guys, they will start to target big corporations. And some of them may not be well prepared for such attacks,” Camacho said.

In Spain, some big firms took pre-emptive steps to thwart ransomware attacks following a warning from Spain’s National Cryptology Centre of “a massive ransomware attack.”

Iberdrola and Gas Natural , along with Vodafone’s unit in Spain , asked staff to turn off computers or cut off internet access in case they had been compromised, representatives from the firms said.

In Spain, the attacks did not disrupt the provision of services or networks operations of the victims, the government said in a statement.

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Ransomware Attacks: Ukrainian Police Seize Servers of Software Firm

 

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Servers of M.E.Doc seized as part of an investigation into the attack
  • Initial infections were spread via a malicious update issued by M.E.Doc
  • At least 3 M.E.Doc updates had been issued with backdoor vulnerability

Ukrainian police on Tuesday seized the servers of an accounting software firm suspected of spreading a malware virus which crippled computer systems at major companies around the world last week, a senior police official said.

The head of Ukraine’s Cyber Police, Serhiy Demedyuk, told Reuters the servers of M.E.Doc – Ukraine’s most popular accounting software – had been seized as part of an investigation into the attack.

Though they are still trying to establish who was behind last week’s attack, Ukrainian intelligence officials and security firms have said some of the initial infections were spread via a malicious update issued by M.E.Doc, charges the company’s owners deny.

The owners were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Premium Service, which says it is an official dealer of M.E.Doc’s software, wrote a post on M.E.Doc’s Facebook page saying masked men were searching M.E.Doc’s offices and that the software firm’s servers and services were down.

Premium Service could not be reached for further comment.

Cyber Police spokeswoman Yulia Kvitko said investigative actions were continuing at M.E.Doc’s offices, adding that further comment would be made on Wednesday.

The police move came after cyber-security investigators unearthed further evidence on Tuesday that the attack had been planned months in advance by highly-skilled hackers, who they said had inserted a vulnerability into the M.E.Doc progamme.

Ukraine also took steps on Tuesday to extend its state tax deadline by one month to help businesses hit by the malware assault.

Researchers at Slovakian security software firm ESET said they had found a “backdoor” written into some of M.E.Doc’s software updates, likely with access to the company’s source code, which allowed hackers to enter companies’ systems undetected.Ransomware Attacks: Ukrainian Police Seize Servers of Software Firm

“Very stealthy and cunning”
“We identified a very stealthy and cunning backdoor that was injected by attackers into one of M.E.Doc’s legitimate modules,” ESET senior malware researcher Anton Cherepanov said in a technical note. “It seems very unlikely that attackers could do this without access to M.E.Doc’s source code.”

“This was a thoroughly well-planned and well-executed operation,” he said.

ESET said at least three M.E.Doc updates had been issued with the “backdoor vulnerability”, and the first one was sent to clients on April 14, more than two months before the attack.

ESET said the hackers likely had access to M.E.Doc’s source code since the beginning of the year, and the detailed preparation before the attack was testament to the advanced nature of their operation.

Oleg Derevianko, board chairman at Ukrainian cyber-security firm ISSP, said an update issued by M.E.Doc in April delivered a virus to the company’s clients which instructed computers to download 350 megabytes of data from an unknown source on the Internet.

The virus then exported 35 megabytes of company data to the hackers, he told Reuters in an interview at his office in Kiev.

“With this 35 megabytes you can exfiltrate anything – emails from all of the banks, user accounts, passwords, anything.”

Little known outside Ukrainian accounting circles, M.E.Doc is used by around 80 percent of companies in Ukraine. The software allows its 400,000 clients to send and collaborate on financial documents between internal departments, as well as file them with the Ukrainian state tax service.

Ukraine’s government said on Tuesday it would submit a draft law to parliament for the country’s tax deadline to be extended to July 15, and waive fines for companies who missed the previous June 13 cutoff because of the attack.

“We had programme failures in connection to the cyber-attack, which meant that businesses were unable to submit account reports on time,” Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman told a cabinet meeting.

Separately, Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, said it had discussed cyber defence with NATO officials and had received equipment from the alliance to better combat future cyber-attacks. Ukraine is not in NATO but is seeking closer ties.

On Saturday Ukrainian intelligence officials accused Russian security services of being behind the attack, and cyber-security researchers linked it to a suspected Russian group who attacked the Ukrainian power grid in December 2016.

A Kremlin spokesman dismissed charges of Russian involvement as “unfounded blanket accusations”.

Derevianko said the hacker’s activity in April and reported access to M.E.Doc’s source code showed Ukraine’s computer networks had already been compromised and that the intruders were still operating inside them.

“It definitely tells us about the advanced capabilities of the adversaries,” he said. “I don’t think any additional evidence is needed to attribute this to a nation-state attack.”

 

Widespread exploit kit, ransomware program, and password stealer mixed into dangerous malware cocktail

New attack campaign combines some of the most successful malware programs

An ongoing attack campaign combines a very effective password stealer, the most widespread exploit kit, called Angler, and the latest version of the infamous CryptoWall file-encrypting ransomware program.

The attackers first use the Pony computer Trojan to pilfer passwords from compromised computers, including FTP and SSH credentials that webmasters use to administer websites, according to researchers from Heimdal Security.

The stolen credentials are then used to inject malicious code into legitimate websites with the goal of redirecting their visitors to an installation of the Angler exploit kit. This is a Web-based attack tool that includes exploits for various vulnerabilities in Windows and browser plug-ins, such as Flash Player and Java.

Computers whose software is not up to date are specifically exposed to Angler attacks, which are known as drive-by downloads. If any of the exploits is successful, CryptoWall 4 is deployed on the computer.

CryptoWall is one of the most widespread and successful ransomware programs to date, having earned its creators millions of dollars in ransom payments. The application encrypts files using a strong cryptographic algorithm and then asks victims to pay for the encryption key.

In the absence of offline backups, many victims, including companies and government organizations, have been forced to pay in order to recover critical documents and other irreplaceable data.

This attack campaign is extensive and originates from a bulletproof hosting environment located in Ukraine, the Heimdal security researchers said in a blog post. “Because of the mechanisms involved and the attackers’ objectives, the campaign is prone to achieve large distribution and affect a big number of PCs and their users.”