Ransomware reveals tech challenges past and future

An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code around the shadow of a man holding a laptop computer in an office in Warsaw June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Who’d be in charge of a corporate IT network with hacks, phishing and now a double dose of so-called ransomware to contend with? This week’s cyber attack hit targets from Ukraine to the United States and more than 60 other countries. Human error enables hacking of today’s network setups. A shift to the cloud reduces that danger, but brings others.

The latest rogue software, a variant of something called Petya, locks computers and posts a message demanding $300 in bitcoins to recover the data. Like the WannaCry virus last month that hit National Health Service computers in the UK, among others, it gets into PCs using code known as Eternal Blue, which security experts believe was developed by the U.S. National Security Agency.

Monday’s attack hit Ukraine’s international airport, Russian oil group Rosneft, advertising giant WPP and FedEx’s TNT Express unit, among others. Its spread may have been limited, though, because after WannaCry many firms patched software including older Microsoft operating systems.

The fact that this wasn’t done earlier is a reminder that current IT architecture depends on people to maintain it. And people can let the bad guys in, too. Malevolent phishing emails abound. Though it was done in fun, the fact that the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Barclays – not to mention the head of the Bank of England – recently responded to prank emails purporting to be from colleagues underlines the human factor.

The cloud, comprising infrastructure managed by the likes of Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft, ought to be immune from much of this. Protection should be cutting-edge, for example, and advanced detection tools should be in place. Software run in the cloud doesn’t need users to update it. Data should be recoverable even if one copy is corrupted.

Yet there are new concerns, too. With today’s hybrid system, cloud-based software can propagate Petya or other malicious agents rapidly. A cloud outage can affect far more users than a cyber attack, as customers of Amazon found out in March when part of the company’s cloud went dark. Companies may need to hire multiple cloud-services providers to minimize this risk.

And of course cyber criminals and unfriendly state actors will simply set their sights higher. After all, holding the entire cloud to ransom sounds a lot more lucrative than targeting any number of individual computers.

(This item has been updated to rephrase the timeline wording in paragraph one for clarity.)


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