LONDON/MADRID A global cyberattack leveraging hacking tools widely believed by researchers to have been developed by the U.S. National Security Agency hit international shipper FedEx, disrupted Britain’s health system and infected computers in dozens of other countries on Friday.
Russian cyber security software maker Kaspersky Lab said its researchers had observed more than 45,000 attacks in 74 countries as of early Friday, although it expected the numbers to increase.
British hospitals and clinics were forced to turn away patients because their computers were infected by a pernicious new form of “ransomware” that rapidly spread across the globe, demanding payments of as much as $600 to restore access and scrambling data.
Leading international shipper FedEx Corp said it was one of the companies whose Microsoft Corp Windows system was infected with the malware that security firms said was delivered via spam emails.
Only a small number of U.S.-headquartered organizations were infected 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 U.S. organizations, spam filters had identified the new threat and flagged the ransomware-laden emails as malicious, Thakur said.
“Like many other companies, FedEx is experiencing interference with some of our Windows-based systems caused by malware,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are implementing remediation steps as quickly as possible.”
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 in the attacks.
Private security firms identified the ransomware as a new variant of “WannaCry” that had the ability to automatically spread across large networks by exploiting a known bug in Microsoft’s Windows operating system.
“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 U.S. 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,” a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement. It said the company was working with its customers to provide additional assistance.
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 U.S. 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, around 1,000 computers at the Russian Interior Ministry were affected by the cyberattack, a spokeswoman for the ministry told Interfax.
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.
(Additional reporting by Jim Finkle, Eric Auchard, Jose Rodriguez, Alistair Smout, Andrea Shalal, Jack Stubbs, Antonella Cinelli, Dustin Volz, Kate Holton, Andy Bruce, Michael Holden, David Milliken, Rosalba O’Brien, Julien Toyer, Tim Hepher, Luiza Ilie, Patricia Rua, Axel Bugge and Sabine Siebold; Writing by Mark Trevelyan and Jim Finkle; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Grant McCool)