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BREAKING: As Wanna Decryptor 2.0 Spreads Damage Globally, Washington Post Reports on Discovery of a “Kill Switch” That Could Stop It

May 13, 2017
by Mark Hagland
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As damage from the Wanna Decryptor 2.0 ransomware virus spread across the world, IT professionals scrambled to come up with durable solutions
The Wanna Decryptor 2.0 message

As a malware attack that has crippled the patient care delivery at the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and affected organizations in nearly 100 countries worldwide beginning early Friday, May12, continued to damage diverse operations globally, The Washington Post reported on Saturday morning on a fortuitous development that might possibly change the landscape around the ransomware, known variously as Wanna Decryptor 2.0, Wanna Cry, Wanna Detector, and under other names.

The Post’s Rick Noack, in a report published at 9:15 AM eastern time U.S. on Saturday morning, wrote that, “As the world began Friday to understand the dimensions of “Wanna Decryptor 2.0,” the ransomware that has crippled computers worldwide, a vacationing British cybersecurity researcher was already several steps ahead. About 3 p.m. Eastern [on Friday, May 12], the specialist with U.S. cybersecurity enterprise Kryptos Logic bought an unusually long and nonsensical domain name ending with “gwea.com.” The 22-year-old says he paid $10.69, but his purchase might have saved companies and governmental institutions around the world billions of dollars. By purchasing the domain name and registering a website,” Noack wrote, “the cybersecurity researcher claims that he activated a kill switch. It immediately slowed the spread of the malware and could ultimately stop its current version, cybersecurity experts said Saturday. Hidden in the malware, the kill switch probably was not supposed to be activated anytime soon. Perhaps it was never supposed to be there in the first place.”

“What it had not counted on was a researcher doing the world a service and taking advantage of a flaw that now seemed glaringly obvious in hindsight,” Robert McArdle, a research director with Tokyo-based cybersecurity company Trend Micro,” told the Post.

“When Darien Huss, a researcher with U.S. cybersecurity company Proofpoint, came across the strange domain in the code Friday evening, he immediately flagged his discovery on social media,” Noack wrote. “Alerted by the finding, a 22-year-old unidentified researcher who tweets using the handle @MalwareTechBlog decided to take action, without knowing what impact registering the domain would have. While spreading to computers, the malware made requests to the unregistered website ending with ‘gwea.com.’ Until about 3 p.m. Friday, all of those requests went unanswered — probably triggering the activation of the malware.”

This series of developments could upend the global situation around the Wanna Decryptor ransomware, as British, U.S. and other national governments, and a host of non-governmental entities, work to try to stop the damage that the ransomware is causing globally. Among those working collaboratively together are the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. Following a brief e-mail alert to U.S. healthcare organizations at 11:59 PM on Friday, ONC released further information at 9:43 AM eastern time on Saturday morning,  directing individuals and organizations to the informational resources at the website of the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or US-CERT, and offering general advice on avoiding malware. ONC also asked the question, “What is HHS doing to secure our systems?” and answered the question with the following bullet-pointed information:

>  HHS Office of the Chief Information Officer implemented enterprise block across all OpDivs and StaffDivs  and is ensuring all patching is up to date.

>  HHS is working with Department of Homeland Security to scan HHS’ CIDR IP addresses through the DHS NCATS program to identify RDP and SMB

>  HHS notified VA and DHA and shared cyber threat information.

>  HHS is coordinating with National Health Service (England) and UK-CERT. HHS through its law enforcement and intelligence resources with the Office of Inspector General and Office of Security and Strategic Information, have ongoing communications and are sharing and exchanging information with other key partners including the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Meanwhile, a news report published early Saturday morning, U.S. eastern time, in The Independent of London, and written by Aatif Suleyman, noted that “The ransomware is taking advantage of EternalBlue, an exploit spies used to secretly break into Windows machines, according to the Register. Microsoft patched the issue earlier this year, but only on the version of the Windows operating system that it continues to support.”

Crucially, Suleyman noted in his report, “Up to 90 per cent of NHS computers still run Windows XP, according to a report published in the BMJ earlier this week. The operating system was released in 2001, and Microsoft cut support for it in 2014. 'People can continue to use the software, but doing so comes with enormous risks,' the report went on, quoting David Emm, the principal security researcher at Kaspersky, as saying that 'Using XP is particularly bad because it’s no longer supported and there’s no way to patch it.'”

Attack continues to spread damage worldwide

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