INTERNATIONAL

Cyberattacks using leaked NSA hacking tool affect 12 nations

An affected computer at an NHS office in Lancashire, U.K.@fendifille via AP

An affected computer at an NHS office in Lancashire, U.K.@fendifille via AP  

An extensive cyberattack struck computers across a wide swath of Europe and Asia on Friday, and strained the public health system in Britain, where doctors were blocked from patient files and emergency rooms were forced to divert patients.

The attack involved ransomware, a kind of malware that encrypts data and locks out the user. According to security experts, it exploited a vulnerability that was discovered and developed by the National Security Agency.

Hackers involved

The hacking tool was leaked by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, which has been dumping stolen NSA hacking tools online beginning last year.

Microsoft rolled out a patch for the vulnerability last March, but hackers took advantage of the fact that vulnerable targets — particularly hospitals — had yet to update their systems.

Reuters reported that employees of Britain’s National Health Service were warned about the ransomware threat earlier Friday.

By then, it was already too late. As the disruptions rippled through hospitals, doctors’ offices and ambulance companies across Britain on Friday, the health service declared the attack as a “major incident,” a warning that local health services could be overwhelmed by patients.

Among the many other institutions that were affected were hospitals and telecommunications companies across Europe, Russia, Asia and beyond, according to MalwareHunterTeam, a security firm that tracks ransomware attacks. Spain’s Telefónica and Russia’s MegaFon were among the targets.

Life-or-death situations

Attacks were being reported in Britain and 11 other countries, including Turkey, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, with the majority of affected computers in Russia. The computers all appeared to be hit with the same ransomware, and similar ransom messages demanding about $300 to unlock their data.

The attack on the National Health Service seemed perhaps the most audacious, because it had life-or-death implications for hospitals and ambulance services.

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