Yesterday’s events were a real eye-opener to me. And I think they should be an eye-opener for anybody involved in critical infrastructure security. Here are some initial thoughts:
- This was an infrastructure event, not just a bunch of individual computers that fell prey to ransomware. Sure, reports say up to a billion dollars may need to be paid in ransom, but that isn’t what’s significant, IMHO. What is significant is the fact that at least one critical infrastructure, that of the National Health Service in the UK, was severely impacted[i]. If nobody lost their life because of this, it will be a miracle. But there were certainly a lot of people whose health will suffer in various ways due to their lack of access to care yesterday.
- As far as I know, all ransomware until yesterday has infected only individual machines (some were servers, of course, which impacts many users). And in all cases, what was affected was data. It was of course painful to pay the ransom, but that restored the data (in most cases), and there were few if any further direct effects. Even a successful ransomware attack on a US electric utility last year didn’t have any impact on operations.
- Compare this to yesterday’s events in the UK, in which surgeries and regular doctors’ appointments had to be cancelled, people were turned away from the ER, patient records and test results couldn’t be accessed, etc. Even though it wasn’t intended as such, this turned out to be an attack on the UK health care infrastructure. This is all due to the fact that WannaCry (and there have been some variants appearing as I write this) is a worm[ii] and a very fast-spreading one at that[iii].
- Now suppose that other critical infrastructure in the UK, such as the power grid, water systems, traffic systems, etc. had also been successfully attacked by WannaCry. If a lot of people had been sickened by impure water, or had traffic accidents when the stoplights in London suddenly went out, where would they have gone for treatment? And with the lights out and the Underground shut down, how would they have gotten there anyway?
So I’d say there are at least two major lessons from this, for the critical infrastructure community. First, an infrastructure attack doesn’t have to be deliberately caused – it can be a side effect of an attack with another purpose. Specifically, a worm-based ransomware attack can have a huge CI impact, even though it was never intended to do this.
Second, the need for coordination among critical infrastructures – both locally and nationally – is greater than ever. In fact, I’m beginning to think that it’s now becoming an unaffordable anachronism to have separate cyber regulatory structures for the Bulk Electric System, electric power distribution, natural gas pipelines, natural gas distribution, water treatment, health services[iv], etc. Maybe there should be a single organization – perhaps under DHS – that regulates cyber security of all critical infrastructures.
Public Service Announcement
Lew Folkerth of RF emailed me this afternoon to ask me to point out that there is now a security patch for Windows XP, Vista and Server 2003 (Microsoft released the patch yesterday). As Lew points out (and this applies to all NERC regions, not just RF), “This means there IS a patch source for those systems, and entities need to identify the source, assess the patch for applicability, and install the patch (or create/update a mitigation plan[v]).” Of course, this only applies to High or Medium impact systems running this software.
Not a Public Service Announcement, but still Interesting
You’ll notice the Binary Defense link I just provided thanks “MalwareTechBlog” for initiating the kill switch that shut the worm off. It points out that this move undoubtedly saved lives. I think the idea is that by shutting the malware off early (US time) on Friday morning, this move greatly inhibited its spreading here, since most workers weren’t in their offices yet and able to open the phishing emails that spread the worm.
But it turns out that the unnamed person behind MalwareTechBlog didn’t actually know he was killing it – you can read the story here. Of course, he still deserves lots of accolades (if he were willing to come forward) and perhaps a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But it just proves an adage I’ve repeated since I was a boy (20 years ago): “Rational planning is good, but in the end there’s no substitute for dumb luck.”
Also not a Public Service Announcement, but also still Interesting
The exploit that made WannaCry so effective was one that had been stolen from the NSA and dumped online by the Shadow Brokers group; this group has been linked to a certain country’s intelligence services. And guess which country – as of today, anyway – is listed as the number one victim of WannaCry? Hmmm…
The views and opinions expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily represent the views or opinions of Deloitte.
[i] Other infrastructure events included factories that had to be shut down, and multiple government bodies in Russia that had to curtail operations.
[ii] More specifically, it is delivered on a “worm delivery system” built on the EternalBlue exploit.
[iii] Although the all-time champ for speed of spreading has to be 2003’s SQL Slammer, which infected its 75,000 victims worldwide within ten minutes. In fact, I read somewhere that this figure was something like 85% of the potential victims (MS SQL systems that hadn’t received a recent patch) worldwide. Talk about efficiency!
[iv] When I speak about health services, I’m not talking about patient data privacy. Cyber regulations like HIPAA in the US are already addressing that. What they aren’t addressing now is the infrastructure required to keep the health system running smoothly. Of course, individual hospitals, doctors’ offices, ambulance services, etc. have a lot of incentive to protect the systems required for their individual operations. But I don’t believe there’s any organization – like NERC for electric power – that is specifically charged with regulating cyber security for the purpose of maintaining reliability of the health care system.