NotPetya cyber-attacks

 

 

In 2017, Delivery company FedEx says a recent cyber-attack cost its TNT division about $300m (£221m).

The company was one of several to have its computer systems severely disrupted by the NotPetya ransomware outbreak in June.

Other international companies have also taken sizeable financial hits as a result of the malware.

Shipping company Maersk announced in August that it had costed its damage at “up to $300m”.

And consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser warned the attack was likely to have cost it £110m.

For the past four and a half years, Ukraine has been locked in a grinding, undeclared war with Russia that has killed more than 10,000 Ukrainians and displaced millions more. The conflict has also seen Ukraine become a scorched-earth testing ground for Russian cyberwar tactics. In 2015 and 2016, while the Kremlin-linked hackers known as Fancy Bear were busy breaking into the US Democratic National Committee’s servers, another group of agents known as Sandworm was hacking into dozens of Ukrainian governmental organizations and companies. They penetrated the networks of victims ranging from media outlets to railway firms, detonating logic bombs that destroyed terabytes of data. The attacks followed a sadistic seasonal cadence. In the winters of both years, the saboteurs capped off their destructive sprees by causing widespread power outages—the first confirmed blackouts induced by hackers.

But those attacks still weren’t Sandworm’s grand finale. In the spring of 2017, unbeknownst to anyone at Linkos Group, Russian military hackers hijacked the company’s update servers to allow them a hidden back door into the thousands of PCs around the country and the world that have M.E.Doc installed. Then, in June 2017, the saboteurs used that back door to release a piece of malware called ­NotPetya, their most vicious cyberweapon yet.

The result was more than $10 billion in total damages, according to a White House assessment confirmed to WIRED by former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, who at the time of the attack was President Trump’s most senior cybersecurity-­focused official. Bossert and US intelligence agencies also confirmed in February that Russia’s military—the prime suspect in any cyberwar attack targeting Ukraine—was responsible for launching the malicious code. (The Russian foreign ministry declined to answer repeated requests for comment.)

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, meanwhile, described NotPetya as “the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history.”

“It was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict. This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyberattack that will be met with international consequences,” Sanders said.

The code that the hackers pushed out was honed to spread automatically, rapidly, and indiscriminately. “To date, it was simply the fastest-propagating piece of malware we’ve ever seen,” says Craig Williams, director of outreach at Cisco’s Talos division, one of the first security companies to reverse engineer and analyze Not­Petya. “By the second you saw it, your data center was already gone.”

NotPetya was propelled by two powerful hacker exploits working in tandem: One was a penetration tool known as EternalBlue, created by the US National Security Agency but leaked in a disastrous breach of the agency’s ultrasecret files earlier in 2017. EternalBlue takes advantage of a vulnerability in a particular Windows protocol, allowing hackers free rein to remotely run their own code on any unpatched machine.

NotPetya’s architects combined that digital skeleton key with an older invention known as Mimikatz, created as a proof of concept by French security researcher Benjamin Delpy in 2011. Delpy had originally released Mimikatz to demonstrate that Windows left users’ passwords lingering in computers’ memory. Once hackers gained initial access to a computer, Mimikatz could pull those passwords out of RAM and use them to hack into other machines accessible with the same credentials. On networks with multiuser computers, it could even allow an automated attack to hopscotch from one machine to the next.

Before NotPetya’s launch, Microsoft had released a patch for its EternalBlue vulnerability. But EternalBlue and Mimikatz together nonetheless made a virulent combination. “You can infect computers that aren’t patched, and then you can grab the passwords from those computers to infect other computers that are patched,” Delpy says.

NotPetya took its name from its resemblance to the ransomware Petya, a piece of criminal code that surfaced in early 2016 and extorted victims to pay for a key to unlock their files. But NotPetya’s ransom messages were only a ruse: The malware’s goal was purely destructive. It irreversibly encrypted computers’ master boot records, the deep-seated part of a machine that tells it where to find its own operating system. Any ransom payment that victims tried to make was futile. No key even existed to reorder the scrambled noise of their computer’s contents.

 

The NSA security leak.

Fifteen months into a wide-ranging investigation by the agency’s counterintelligence arm, known as Q Group, and the F.B.I., officials still do not know whether the N.S.A. is the victim of a brilliantly executed hack, with Russia as the most likely perpetrator, an insider’s leak, or both. Three employees have been arrested since 2015 for taking classified files, but there is fear that one or more leakers may still be in place. And there is broad agreement that the damage from the Shadow Brokers already far exceeds the harm to American intelligence done by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who fled with four laptops of classified material in 2013.

Mr. Snowden’s cascade of disclosures to journalists and his defiant public stance drew far more media coverage than this new breach. But Mr. Snowden released code words, while the Shadow Brokers have released the actual code; if he shared what might be described as battle plans, they have loosed the weapons themselves. Created at huge expense to American taxpayers, those cyberweapons have now been picked up by hackers from North Korea to Russia and shot back at the United States and its allies.

Inside the agency’s Maryland headquarters and its campuses around the country, N.S.A. employees have been subjected to polygraphs and suspended from their jobs in a hunt for turncoats allied with the Shadow Brokers. Much of the agency’s arsenal is still being replaced, curtailing operations. Morale has plunged, and experienced specialists are leaving the agency for better-paying jobs — including with firms defending computer networks from intrusions that use the N.S.A.’s leaked tools.

EternalBlue is the name of both a software vulnerability in Microsoft’s Windows operating system and an exploit the National Security Agency developed to weaponize the bug. In April 2017, the exploit leaked to the public, part of the fifth release of alleged NSA tools by the still mysterious group known as the Shadow Brokers. Unsurprisingly, the agency has never confirmed that it created EternalBlue, or anything else in the Shadow Brokers releases, but numerous reports corroborate its origin—and even Microsoft has publicly attributed its existence to the NSA.

The tool exploits a vulnerability in the Windows Server Message Block, a transport protocol that allows Windows machines to communicate with each other and other devices for things like remote services and file and printer sharing. Attackers manipulate flaws in how SMB handles certain packets to remotely execute any code they want. Once they have that foothold into that initial target device, they can then fan out across a network.

In the aftermath of WannaCry, Microsoft and others criticized the NSA for keeping the EternalBlue vulnerability a secret for years instead of proactively disclosing it for patching. Some reports estimate that the NSA used and continued to refine the EternalBlue exploit for at least five years, and only warned Microsoft when the agency discovered that the exploit had been stolen. EternalBlue can also be used in concert with other NSA exploits released by the Shadow Brokers, like the kernel backdoor known as DarkPulsar, which burrows deep into the trusted core of a computer where it can often lurk undetected.

At this point, EternalBlue has fully transitioned into one of the ubiquitous, name-brand instruments in every hacker’s toolbox—much like the password extraction tool Mimikatz. But EternalBlue’s widespread use is tinged with the added irony that a sophisticated, top-secret US cyber espionage tool is now the people’s crowbar. It is also frequently used by an array of nation state hackers, including those in Russia’s Fancy Bear group, who started deploying EternalBlue last year as part of targeted attacks to gather passwords and other sensitive data on hotel Wi-Fi networks.

New examples of EternalBlue’s use in the wild still crop up frequently. In February, more attackers leveraged EternalBlue to install cryptocurrency-mining software on victim computers and servers, refining the techniques to make the attacks more reliable and effective. “EternalBlue is ideal for many attackers because it leaves very few event logs,” or digital traces, Rendition Infosec’s Williams notes. “Third-party software is required to see the exploitation attempts.”

And just last week, security researchers at Symantec published findings on the Iran-based hacking group Chafer, which has used EternalBlue as part of its expanded operations. In the past year, Chafer has attacked targets around the Middle East, focusing on transportation groups like airlines, aircraft services, industry technology firms, and telecoms.

“It’s incredible that a tool which was used by intelligence services is now publicly available and so widely used amongst malicious actors,” says Vikram Thakur, technical director of Symantec’s security response. “To [a hacker] it’s just a tool to make their lives easier in spreading across a network. Plus they use these tools in trying to evade attribution. It makes it harder for us to determine whether the attacker was sitting in country one or two or three.”

It will be years before enough computers are patched against EternalBlue that hackers retire it from their arsenals. At least by now security experts know to watch for it—and to appreciate the clever innovations hackers come up with to use the exploit in more and more types of attacks.

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