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20 May 2017, 02:47 | Deanna Wagner
Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage.
The attacks used ransomware that apparently exploited a security flaw in Microsoft operating systems, locking users' files unless they pay the attackers a designated sum in the virtual currency Bitcoin.
Technical staff scrambled on Sunday to patch computers and restore infected ones, amid fears that the ransomware worm that stopped vehicle factories, hospitals, shops and schools could wreak fresh havoc on Monday when employees log back on.
Cyber security experts said the spread of the virus dubbed WannaCry had slowed but that the respite might only be brief amid fears it could cause new havoc on Monday when employees return to work.
When a demand for ransom payments appears on a user's screen - $300 at first, doubling to $600 in a few days - it's usually too late: All files on that computer have been encrypted and are unreadable by their owners.
Microsoft distributed a patch two months ago that could have forestalled much of the attack, but in many organizations it was likely lost among the blizzard of updates and patches that large corporations and governments strain to manage.
Brad Smith, who is Microsoft's chief legal officer, said Sunday in a blog post that his company, its customers and the government all share the blame. "We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the Central Intelligence Agency show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world". He says that when the NSA lost control of the software behind the cyberattack, it was like "the USA military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen".
A Jakarta hospital said on Sunday that the cyber virus had infected 400 computers, disrupting the registration of patients and finding records. Shortly after that disclosure, Microsoft announced that it had already issued software "patches", or fixes, for those holes - but many users haven't yet installed the fixes or are using older versions of Windows.
"As cybercriminals become more sophisticated, there is simply no way for customers to protect themselves against threats unless they update their systems", Mr Smith said.
When it comes to the ransomware attack, some observe that criticism of the NSA is misplaced, given that Microsoft had patched the vulnerability prior to its disclosure. If there is a flaw in Windows, the company said, surely the safest thing to do is to let its team know straight away so it can be fixed.
Marin Ivezic, cybersecurity partner at PwC, said that some clients had been "working around the clock since the story broke" to restore systems and install software updates, or patches, or restore systems from backups. Worldwide shipper FedEx Corp said some of its Windows computers were also breached. Tough - time-consuming, expensive and complex.
On top of that, the NSA would likely be able to claim that it is shielded from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which says that the government cannot be sued over carrying out its official duties. The malware spreads through e-mail.
Becky Pinkard, from Digital Shadows, a UK-based cyber-security firm, told AFP news agency that it would be easy for the initial attackers or "copy-cat authors" to change the virus code so it is hard to guard against.
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