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‘Don’t pay ransom, it won’t help’ Malware that crippled networks likely a ‘nation state attack,’ says security expert

Analysts going through the malware's code said that the cyberattack may not be ransomware at all. Victims' data appear to be hopelessly scrambled, rather than recoverable after the payment of ransom


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PARIS—Companies and governments around the world have begun counting the cost of a software epidemic that disrupted ports, hospitals and banks, and the costs are high.

Originally considered to be a ransomware attack, the malware that struck on June 27 didn’t appear to make a lot of money for its creators. A bitcoin wallet used to collect ransoms showed only about $10,000. And some analysts going through the malware’s code said that the ransomware may not even operate as ransomware at all; victims’ data appear to be hopelessly scrambled, rather than recoverable after the payment of ransom.

Matthieu Suiche, the founder of Dubai-based cyber security firm Comae Technologies, said the ransom demand was merely “a mega-diversion.” In a blog post, he wrote that the code pointed not to criminals, but “in fact a nation state attack.”

Suiche went on call the attack a “wiper,” not ransomware.

Researchers at Kaspersky Lab echoed the findings, saying in a statement, “Our analysis indicates there is little hope for victims to recover their data.”

A blog on the Kapersky website advises victims not to pay the ransom. “At Kaspersky Lab, we do not advocate paying the ransom anyway, but in this case, it’s certainly pointless,” the company said.

Gavin O’Gorman, an investigator with U.S. antivirus firm Symantec said the motive may simply have been chaos.

“There may be a more nefarious motive behind the attack,” he said in a blog post. “Perhaps this attack was never intended to make money (but) rather to simply disrupt a large number of Ukrainian organizations.”

O’Gorman was one of several researchers who noted that any criminals would have had difficulty monetizing the epidemic given that they appear to have relied on a single email address that was blocked almost immediately.

Companies across the world affected
Logistics firm FedEx says deliveries by its TNT Express subsidiary have been “slowed” by the cyberattack, which had “significantly affected” its systems.

Ports operated by the Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk are still crippled. An Alabama port official, James K. Lyons, said crews at Maersk’s APM terminal in Mobile, Ala., have been loading and unloading containers in manual mode, without the normal computerized co-ordination. The company’s operations were shuttered in Mumbai, India; Port Elizabeth, N.J.; and Los Angeles, among others.

In a statement, Moller-Maersk acknowledged that its APM Terminals had been “impacted in a number of ports” and that an undisclosed number of systems were shut down “to contain the issue.” The company declined to provide further detail or make an official available for an interview.

Ukraine, which was hardest hit and where the attack likely originated, said it had secured critical state assets—though everyday life remained affected, with cash machines out of order and airport displays operating manually.

As the impact of the cyberattack that erupted June 27 was still being measured, the Ukrainian Cabinet said that “all strategic assets, including those involved in protecting state security, are working normally.”

But that still left a large number of non-strategic assets, including dozens of banks and other institutions, fighting to get back online. Cash machines in Kyiv seen by an Associated Press photographer were still out of order June 28, and Ukrainian news reports said that flight information at the city’s Boryspil airport was being provided in manual mode.

A local cybersecurity expert discounted the Ukrainian government’s assurances.

“Obviously they don’t control the situation,” Victor Zhora of Infosafe in Kyiv told the AP.

At the very least, cybersecurity firms say thousands of computers worldwide have been struck by the malware, which goes by a variety of names, including ExPetr.

In Pennsylvania, lab and diagnostic services were closed at the satellite offices of the Heritage Valley Health System. In Tasmania, an Australian official said a Cadbury chocolate factory had stopped production after computers there crashed. Other organizations affected include U.S. drugmaker Merck, food and drinks company Mondelez International, global law firm DLA Piper, and London-based advertising group WPP.

But most of the damage remains hidden away in corporate offices and industrial parks.

As IT security workers turned their eye toward cleaning up the mess, others wondered at the attackers’ motives. The attack has the telltale signs of ransomware, which scrambles a computer’s data until a payment is made, but some experts believe this attack was less aimed at gathering money than at sending a message to Ukraine and its allies.

That hunch was buttressed by the way the malware appears to have been seeded using a rogue update to a piece of Ukrainian accounting software _ suggesting an attacker focused on Ukrainian targets.

And it comes on the anniversary of the assassination of a senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer and a day before a national holiday celebrating a new constitution signed after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

“The threat we’re talking about looks like it was specially developed for Ukraine because that was the place it created most of the damage,” said Bogdan Botezatu, of Romanian security firm Bitdefender, calling it a case of “national sabotage.”

Suspicions were further heightened by the re-emergence of the mysterious Shadow Brokers group of hackers, whose dramatic leak of powerful NSA tools helped power Tuesday’s outbreak, as it did a previous ransomware explosion last month that was dubbed WannaCry.

In a post published Wednesday, The Shadow Brokers made new threats, announced a new money-making scheme and made a boastful reference to the recent chaos.

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ladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, Larry Rosenthal in Philadelphia, Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles, Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama and Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.


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