Category Archives: National Security Agency

A new ransomware outbreak similar to WCry is shutting down computers worldwide

Enlarge / This is the note that's left on computers infected by PetyaWrap. (credit: Eset)

A new ransomware attack similar to last month's self-replicating WCry outbreak is sweeping the world with at least 80 large companies infected, reportedly including drug maker Merck, international shipping company Maersk, law firm DLA Piper, UK advertising firm WPP, and snack food maker Mondelez International. It has attacked at least 2,000 computers, according to one security company.

PetyaWrap, as some researchers are calling the ransomware, uses the same potent National Security Agency exploit that allowed WCry to paralyze hospitals, shipping companies, and train stations in a matter of hours on May 12. EternalBlue, as the exploit was code-named by its NSA developers, was published in April by a still-unknown group calling itself the Shadow Brokers. The leak gave people with only moderate technical skills a powerful vehicle for delivering virtually any kind of digital warhead. Microsoft patched the underlying vulnerability in Windows 7 and 8.1 in March, and in a rare move the company issued fixes for unsupported Windows versions 24 hours after the WCry outbreak. That meant infections were only possible on machines that were running outdated versions of the OS.

While some researchers said PetyaWrap was a new version of the long-established Petya ransomware, researchers from antivirus provider Kaspersky Lab said that preliminary findings showed it was, in fact, a new piece of malware that had never been seen before. Kaspersky said that it at least 2,000 computers that use its AV products had already been attacked by it.

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Honda shuts down factory after finding NSA-derived Wcry in its networks

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The WCry ransomware worm has struck again, this time prompting Honda Company to halt production in one of its Japan-based factories after finding infections in a broad swath of its computer networks, according to media reports.

The automaker shut down its Sayama plant northwest of Tokyo on Monday after finding that WCry had affected networks across Japan, North America, Europe, China, and other regions, Reuters reported Wednesday. Discovery of the infection came on Sunday, more than five weeks after the onset of the NSA-derived ransomware worm, which struck an estimated 727,000 computers in 90 countries. The mass outbreak was quickly contained through a major stroke of good luck. A security researcher largely acting out of curiosity registered a mysterious domain name contained in the WCry code that acted as a global kill switch that immediately halted the self-replicating attack.

Honda officials didn't explain why engineers found WCry in their networks 37 days after the kill switch was activated. One possibility is that engineers had mistakenly blocked access to the kill-switch domain. That would have caused the WCry exploit to proceed as normal, as it did in the 12 or so hours before the domain was registered. Another possibility is that the WCry traces in Honda's networks were old and dormant, and the shutdown of the Sayama plant was only a precautionary measure. In any event, the discovery strongly suggests that as of Monday, computers inside the Honda network had yet to install a highly critical patch that Microsoft released in March.

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Win XP patched to avert new outbreaks spawned by NSA-leaking Shadow Brokers

(credit: Microsoft)

On Tuesday, Microsoft took the highly unusual step of issuing security patches for XP and other unsupported versions of Windows. The company did this in a bid to protect the OSes against a series of "destructive" exploits developed by, and later stolen from, the National Security Agency.

By Ars' count, Tuesday is only the third time in Microsoft history that the company has issued free security updates for a decommissioned product. One of those came one day after last month's outbreak of the highly virulent "WCry" ransom worm, which repurposed NSA-developed exploits. The exploits were leaked by the Shadow Brokers, a mysterious group that somehow got hold of weaponized NSA hacking tools. (WCry is also known as "WannaCry" and "WannaCrypt.")

Tuesday's updates, this updated Microsoft post shows, include fixes for three other exploits that were also released by the Shadow Brokers. A Microsoft blog post announcing the move said the patches were prompted by an "elevated risk of destructive cyberattacks" by government organizations.

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New Shadow Brokers 0-day subscription forces high-risk gamble on whitehats

Enlarge / Gambling. (credit: Jamie Adams)

The mysterious group that over the past nine months has leaked millions of dollars' worth of advanced hacking tools developed by the National Security Agency said Tuesday it will release a new batch of tools to individuals who pay a $21,000 subscription fee. The plans, announced in a cryptographically signed post published Tuesday morning, are generating an intense moral dilemma for security professionals around the world.

On the one hand, the Shadow Brokers, as the person or group calls itself, has in the past released potent hacking tools into the wild, including two that were used to deliver the WCry ransomware worm that infected more than 200,000 computers in 150 countries. If the group releases similarly catastrophic exploits for Windows 10 or mainstream browsers, security professionals are arguably obligated to have access to them as soon as possible to ensure patches and exploit signatures are in place to prevent similar outbreaks. On the other hand, there's something highly unsavory and arguably unethical about whitehats paying blackhats with a track record as dark as that of the Shadow Brokers.

"It certainly creates a moral issue for me," Matthew Hickey, cofounder of security firm Hacker House, told Ars. "Endorsing criminal conduct by paying would be the wrong message to send. Equally, I think $21k is a small price to pay to avoid another WannaCry situation, and I am sure many of its victims would agree with that sentiment."

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Windows 7, not XP, was the reason last week’s WCry worm spread so widely

Enlarge (credit: Kaspersky Lab)

Eight days ago, the WCry ransomware worm attacked more than 200,000 computers in 150 countries. The outbreak prompted infected hospitals to turn away patients and shut down computers in banks and telecoms. Now that researchers have had time to analyze the self-replicating attack, they're learning details that shed new and sometimes surprising light on the world's biggest ransomware attack.

Chief among the revelations: more than 97 percent of infections hit computers running Windows 7, according to attacks seen by antivirus provider Kaspersky Lab. By contrast, infected Windows XP machines were practically non-existent, and those XP PCs that were compromised were likely manually infected by their owners for testing purposes. That's according to Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab's Global Research and Analysis Team, who spoke to Ars.

While the estimates are based only on computers that run Kaspersky software, as opposed to all computers on the Internet, there's little question Windows 7 was overwhelmingly affected by WCry, which is also known as "WannaCry" and "WannaCrypt." Security ratings firm BitSight found that 67 percent of infections hit Windows 7, Reuters reported.

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Fearing Shadow Brokers leak, NSA reported critical flaw to Microsoft

Enlarge / An aerial view of the NSA. (credit: nsa.gov)

After learning that one of its most prized hacking tools was stolen by a mysterious group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, National Security Agency officials warned Microsoft of the critical Windows vulnerability the tool exploited, according to a report published Tuesday by The Washington Post. The private disclosure led to a patch that was issued in March.

Those same NSA officials, according to Tuesday's report, failed to communicate the severity of the vulnerability to the outside world. A month after Microsoft released the patch, the Shadow Brokers published the attack code, code-named EternalBlue, that exploited the critical Windows vulnerability. A month after that, attackers used a modified version of EternalBlue to infect computers around the world with malware that blocked access to data. Within hours of the outbreak of the ransomware worm dubbed WCry, infected hospitals turned away patients; banks, telecommunications companies, and government agencies shut down computers.

"NSA identified a risk and communicated it to Microsoft, who put out an immediate patch," Mike McNerney, a former Pentagon cybersecurity official and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, told The Washington Post. The problem, he said, is that no senior official took the step of shouting to the world: "This one is very serious, and we need to protect ourselves."

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Massive cryptocurrency botnet used leaked NSA exploits weeks before WCry

Enlarge / A cryptocurrency mining farm. (credit: Marco Krohn)

On Friday, Ransomware called WannaCry used leaked hacking tools stolen from the National Security Agency to attack an estimated 200,000 computers in 150 countries. On Monday, researchers said the same weapons-grade attack kit was used in a much earlier and possibly larger-scale hack that made infected computers part of a botnet that mined cryptocurrency.

Like WannaCry, this earlier, previously unknown attack used an exploit codenamed EternalBlue and a backdoor called DoublePulsar, both of which were NSA-developed hacking tools leaked in mid April by a group calling itself Shadow Brokers. But instead of installing ransomware, the campaign pushed cryptocurrency mining software known as Adylkuzz. WannaCry, which gets its name from a password hard-coded into the exploit, is also known as WCry.

Kafeine, a well-known researcher at security firm Proofpoint, said the attack started no later than May 2 and may have begun as early as April 24. He said the campaign was surprisingly effective at compromising Internet-connected computers that have yet to install updates Microsoft released in early March to patch the critical vulnerabilities in the Windows implementation of the Server Message Block protocol. In a blog post published Monday afternoon Kafeine wrote:

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2 days after WCry worm, Microsoft decries exploit stockpiling by governments

Enlarge (credit: Stephen Brashear / Getty Images News)

Two days after a National Security Agency-derived ransomware worm infected 200,000 computers in 150 countries, Microsoft on Sunday criticized the stockpiling of exploits by government spies, warning it results in damage to civilians.

The unusually blunt message from Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith came after a weekend of tense calm, as security professionals assessed damage from Friday's outbreak and braced themselves for the possibility of follow-on attacks that might be harder to stop. It also came 24 hours after Microsoft took the highly unusual step of issuing patches that immunize Windows XP, 8, and Server 2003, operating systems the company stopped supporting as many as three years ago.

Sunday's salvo tacitly noted the NSA's key role in Friday's attack, which copied almost verbatim large sections of two highly advanced hacking tools that were stolen from the NSA and leaked to the world at large last month by a mysterious group calling itself Shadow Brokers. In the post, Smith wrote:

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Microsoft’s response to widespread cyber attacks may make you WannaCry

 Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer Brad Smith took to the company’s website to give a post mortem on the lessons that need to be learned from the global hack that crippled businesses and government services around the world. After walking through the ways that the “WannaCrypt” (or WannaCry) virus spread from the United Kingdom and Spain to websites around… Read More