LONDON (AP) — Employees booting up computers at work Monday could see red as they discover they’re victims of a global “ransomware” cyberattack that has created chaos in 150 countries and could wreak even greater havoc as more malicious variations appear.
As a loose global network of cybersecurity experts fought the ransomware hackers, officials and experts on Sunday urged organizations and companies to update older Microsoft operating systems immediately to ensure they aren’t vulnerable to a more powerful version of the software — or to future versions that can’t be stopped.
The initial attack, known as “WannaCry,” paralyzed computers that run Britain’s hospital network, Germany’s national railway and scores of other companies and government agencies worldwide in what was believed to be the biggest online extortion scheme so far.
Microsoft blamed the U.S. government for “stockpiling” software code that was used by unknown hackers to launch the attacks. The hackers exploited software code from the National Security Agency that leaked online.
The company’s top lawyer said the government should report weaknesses they discover to software companies rather than seek to exploit them.
“An equivalent scenario with conventional weapons would be the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen,” attorney Brad Smith wrote on Microsoft’s blog.
New variants of the rapidly replicating worm were discovered Sunday and one did not include the so-called kill switch that allowed researchers to interrupt its spread Friday by diverting it to a dead end on the internet.
Ryan Kalember, senior vice president at Proofpoint Inc. which helped stop its spread, said the version without a kill switch was able to spread but was benign because it contained a flaw that wouldn’t allow it to take over a computer and demand ransom to unlock files. However, he said it’s only a matter of time before a malevolent version exists.
“I still expect another to pop up and be fully operational,” Kalember said. “We haven’t fully dodged this bullet at all until we’re patched against the vulnerability itself.”
The attack held users hostage by freezing their computers, popping up a red screen with the words, “Oops, your files have been encrypted!” and demanding money through online bitcoin payment — $300 at first, rising to $600 before it destroys files hours later.