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How to Protect Your Organization’s Computers from WannaCry-Like Cyber-Attack
Microsoft recently took an unusual step of rolling out a patch for Windows operating systems that are out of support in an effort to stop a WannaCry-like cyber-attack.
This is the second time in just over 2 years that the technology giant rolled out a patch for Windows operating systems that are out of support. The previous unprecedented patch was rolled out at the height of the WannaCry cyber-attack on May 12, 2017.
According to Microsoft, the latest patch, which was released on May 14, 2019, fixes the security vulnerability in out-of-support versions of Windows, specifically Windows 2003 and Windows XP; as well as versions of Windows that still receive support from Microsoft, specifically Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2008.
Failure to apply the May 14, 2019 patch renders the above-mentioned out-of-support and in-support versions of Windows vulnerable to WannaCry-like cyber-attack, this according to Simon Pope, Director of Incident Response at Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC).
What Is WannaCry?
WannaCry is a malicious software (malware) that wreaked havoc in more than 300,000 computers in over 150 countries in less than 24 hours on May 12, 2017. Once a computer becomes infected with WannaCry, this malware encrypts files on the computer's hard drive, making it impossible for legitimate users to access them, and demands a ransom payment in exchange of the decryption keys that supposedly would unlock the encrypted files.
After infecting one computer, the WannaCry malware spreads itself through the network, infecting other vulnerable devices, without the need for further action from the users. Attempts on the part of the WannaCry victims to unlock the encrypted files by paying the ransom was a useless endeavour as the source code of this malware was written in such a way that it isn’t possible to determine who paid the ransom and who didn’t, as such, there’s no way to decrypt on a per-user basis.
Two months, specifically on March 14, 2017, prior to the WannaCry cyber-attack, Microsoft released a patch that fixes the security vulnerability exploited by WannaCry. The patch, however, wasn’t made available to Windows operating systems that were out of support, specifically Windows XP, Windows 8 and Windows Server 2003. At the height of the WannaCry cyber-attack on May 12, 2017, Microsoft took an unusual step of rolling out a patch for these 3 out-of-support versions of Windows.
The WannaCry malware was able to infect hundreds of thousands of computers in less than 24 hours as a result of these two features: remote code execution and worm capabilities.
Remote code execution is the ability of a malicious actor to access someone else's computer and make malicious changes to this computer regardless of the geographical location of this device. Worm capability, meanwhile, refers to the capability of a malware to spread itself through the network, infecting other vulnerable devices, without user interaction.
The May 14, 2019 patch released by Microsoft fixes the security vulnerability labelled CVE-2019-0708. Similar the WannaCry malware, security vulnerability CVE-2019-0708 exhibits remote code execution and worm capabilities.
Pope, Director of Incident Response at Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC), said in a blog post, that while there’s no evidence that this security vulnerability has been exploited in the wild, it’s highly likely that malicious actors will write an exploit for this vulnerability and include it into their malware.
The security vulnerability, Pope said, is “wormable”, which means that “any future malware that exploits this vulnerability could propagate from vulnerable computer to vulnerable computer in a similar way as the WannaCry malware spread across the globe in 2017.”
WannaCry, in particular, infects vulnerable Windows operating systems via Server Message Block 1.0 (SMBv1) server – a protocol that enables Windows systems to share files, printers and serial ports. In vulnerability CVE-2019-0708, remote code execution and worm capabilities are made possible via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) – a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft which allows users to access another computer over a network connection. “The Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) itself is not vulnerable,” Pope said. “This vulnerability is pre-authentication ….”
Many malware in the past were able to bypass anti-malware and other security defences via RDP. Malicious actors gain access to compromised devices by stealing or brute forcing RDP credentials.
In early 2019, authorities shut down xDedic Marketplace, a website involved in the illicit sale of RDP credentials. According to authorities, RDP login details of tens of thousands of compromised servers owned by unknowing companies and private individuals were sold on the xDedic platform for amounts ranging from $6 to more than $10,000 each.
The top preventive measure in order to protect your organization’s computers from WannaCry and WannaCry-like cyber-attack is by keeping all software and, in particular, operating system software up-to-date.
It’s worthy to note that even though it has been a long time since the major WannaCry attack, organizations continue to be victimized by this malware. Months after the major WannaCry attack, US aircraft maker Boeingfell victim to WannaCry. In March 2018, Mike VanderWel, chief engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplane production engineering, sent out an alert to his colleagues that the WannaCry malware was “metastasizing rapidly” out of Boeing’s North Charleston production plant and could potentially “spread to airplane software”. Linda Mills, head of communications for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in a statement said, “The vulnerability was limited to a few machines.”
As an added protection to your organization’s computers, it’s best to disable Windows protocols that are often exploited by malicious actors. Specific to WannaCry malware, disable SMB protocol and for the security vulnerability CVE-2019-0708, disable RDP.
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Steve E. Driz