WannaCry: A preview of coming attacks?

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With malware innovations seemingly outpacing the efforts of both public and private entities to protect against them, we must find a new way to deal with the issues malware poses.

The astonishing spread of the WannaCry ransomware that exploded onto the global scene on May 12 is not the work of some genius malware developers.  Rather, it is a clear example of the confluence of two trends, one that should have been strangled a long time ago and the other an inevitable result of technological progress.

Most people, if they’ve been paying attention, have noticed the recent growth in ransomware. In its 2017 Data Breach Investigations Report, Verizon said ransomware is now the fifth most common malware, compared to just the 22nd most common in 2014.

Part of the reason for that jump is the increasingly sophisticated techniques used to create the malware and share the code. The WannaCry malware apparently uses code first developed by the Lazarus Group, a shady outfit that’s been linked to some of the biggest and most effective raids on bank and finance systems around the world. The rise of ransomware-as-a-service is apparently making sophisticated malware available to even the most technically deficient criminal.

WannaCry also took advantage of a Windows exploit called EternalBlue that was developed by the National Security Agency and that attacks weaknesses in Microsoft’s SMBv1 (Server Message Block 1.0) using a backdoor tool also created by the NSA. All Windows machines still running an older version of the operating system -- Windows XP up through Windows 7 -- were vulnerable to WannaCry.

It’s not clear just how aware security professionals are, both in the public and private sectors, of the increasingly industrial nature of malware development and exploits. Malware creators are every bit as capable as their white-hat counterparts, and the infrastructure that makes malware easily obtainable by criminals is starting to mirror that of the legitimate software industry. The other side of this picture is the continued foot-dragging by users to start practicing baseline, no-brainer security such as regularly patching their systems. Microsoft, for example, issued a security update for the SMBv1 vulnerability in March, but thousands of systems were still thought to be unpatched when the WannaCry ransomware was launched.

Microsoft took the unusual step of sending out an emergency custom patch for Windows XP, Windows 8 and Windows Server 2003 machines on the first day of the attack. It also suggested that users make other changes, such as blocking legacy protocols on their networks, to counter similar attacks in the future.

One thing that’s still unclear is the potential impact of the attack for the government’s own agencies -- in this case, the NSA. It developed EternalBlue as its own weapon in the fight against groups hostile to the U.S., but when it was stolen last year along with a stash of other NSA cyber weapons and the code eventually published, questions began to be asked about whether the NSA was itself secure enough to be holding such potent hacking tools.

NSA officials also apparently worried about that. In a blog post, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said the WannaCry incident is yet another example of why the stockpiling of such things as EternalBlue, which wasn’t revealed to industry or anyone else, is such a problem.

“This is an emerging pattern in 2017,” he wrote. “We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world.”

All governments should treat this attack as a wake-up call, he said, and they must take a different approach and apply the same rules to cyber weapons as they do to weapons in the physical world.

That’s probably good advice. Up to now, cyberattacks have been non-lethal, but WannaCry showed just what real-world damage can be caused by ransomware and other types of malware. The UK’s National Health Service was one of the first and worst hit by WannaCry, and many hospitals there had to put off essential surgeries and other procedures.

With the pace of malware innovation seemingly outpacing the efforts of both public and private entities to protect against them, we must find a new way to deal with the issues malware poses. Microsoft, for example, wants a Digital Geneva Convention that will govern global cybersecurity, which would include a requirement for governments to report vulnerabilities to software vendors, rather than stockpile them.

Right now, that kind of collective response is a reach, but WannaCry has certainly shown just why it’s needed.

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