BOSTON — The single biggest global ransomware attack yet continued to bite Monday as details emerged on how the Russia-linked gang responsible breached the company whose software was the conduit. In essence, the criminals used a tool that helps protect against malware to spread it widely.
An affiliate of the notorious REvil gang, best known for extorting $11 million from the meat-processor JBS after a Memorial Day attack, infected thousands of victims in at least 17 countries on Friday, largely through firms that remotely manage IT infrastructure for multiple customers, cybersecurity researchers said.
REvil was demanding ransoms of up to $5 million. But late Sunday it offered in a posting on its dark web site a universal decryptor software key that would unscramble all affected machines in exchange for $70 million in cryptocurrency. It wasn’t clear who they expected might pay that amount.
Sweden may have been hardest hit by the attack — or at least most transparent about it. Its defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, bemoaned on Monday “a serious attack on basic functions in Swedish society.”
”It shows how fragile the system is when it comes to IT security and that you must constantly work to develop your ability to defend yourself,” he said in a TV interview. Most of the Swedish grocery chain Coop’s 800 stores were closed all weekend because their cash register software supplier was crippled. They remained closed Monday. A Swedish pharmacy chain, gas station chain, the state railway and public broadcaster SVT were also hit.
A broad array of businesses and public agencies were affected, including in financial services, travel and leisure and the public sector — though few large companies, the cybersecurity firm Sophos reported. The cybersecurity firm ESET identified victims in countries including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Indonesia, New Zealand and Kenya.
Ransomware criminals infiltrate networks and sow malware that cripples them by scrambling all their data. Victims get a decoder key when they pay up.
In Germany, an unnamed IT services company told authorities several thousand of its customers were compromised, the news agency dpa reported. Also among reported victims were two big Dutch IT services companies — VelzArt and Hoppenbrouwer Techniek. Most ransomware victims don’t publicly report attacks or disclose if they’ve paid ransoms.
On Sunday, the FBI said in a statement that while it was investigating the attack, its scale “may make it so that we are unable to respond to each victim individually.” Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger later issued a statement saying President Joe Biden had “directed the full resources of the government to investigate this incident” and urged all who believed they were compromised to alert the FBI.
Biden suggested Saturday the U.S. would respond if it was determined that the Kremlin is at all involved. Less than a month ago, Biden pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop giving safe haven to REvil and other ransomware gangs whose unrelenting extortionary attacks the U.S. deems a national security threat.
On Monday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked if Russia was aware of the attack or had looked into it. He said no, but suggested it could be discussed by the U.S. and Russia in consultations on cybersecurity issues for which no timeline has been specified.
Experts say it was no coincidence that REvil launched the attack at the start of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, knowing U.S. offices would be lightly staffed and many victims might not learn of it until back at work Monday or Tuesday.
Most end users of managed service providers “have no idea” whose software keep their networks humming, said CEO Fred Voccola of the breached software company, Kaseya.
He estimated the victim number in the low thousands, mostly small businesses like “dental practices, architecture firms, plastic surgery centers, libraries, things like that.”
Voccola said only between 50-60 of the company’s 37,000 customers were compromised. But 70% were managed service providers who use the company’s hacked VSA software to manage multiple customers. It automates the installation of software and malware-detection updates and manages backups and other vital tasks.
Kaseya said it sent a detection tool to nearly 900 customers on Saturday night.
The REvil offer to offer blanket decryption for all victims of the Kaseya attack in exchange for $70 million suggested its inability to cope with the sheer quantity of infected networks, said Allan Liska, an analyst with the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.
But Kevin Reed of Acronis said the offer of a universal decryptor could be a PR stunt because no human involvement would be needed to pay a $45,000 base ransom demand apparently sent to the vast majority of targets. Analysts reported seeing demands of $5 million and $500,000 for bigger targets, which would require negotiation.
Analyst Brett Callow of Emsisoft said he suspects REvil is hoping insurers might crunch the numbers and determine the $70 million will be cheaper for them than extended downtime.
Sophisticated ransomware gangs on REvil’s level usually examine a victim’s financial records — and insurance policies if they can find them — from files they steal before activating the ransomware. The criminals then threaten to dump the stolen data online unless paid, although that does not appear to have happened in this case. But this attack was apparently bare-bones. REvil seems only to have scrambled victims’ data.
Dutch researchers said they alerted Miami-based Kaseya to the breach and said the criminals used a “zero day,” the industry term for a previous unknown security hole in software. Voccola would not confirm that or offer details of the breach — except to say that it was not phishing.
“The level of sophistication here was extraordinary,” he said.
It was not the first ransomware attack to leverage managed services providers. In 2019, criminals hobbled the networks of 22 Texas municipalities through one. That same year, 400 U.S. dental practices were crippled in a separate attack.
Active since April 2019, REvil provides ransomware-as-a-service, meaning it develops the network-paralyzing software and leases it to so-called affiliates who infect targets and earn the lion’s share of ransoms. U.S. officials say the most potent ransomware gangs are based in Russia and allied states and operate with Kremlin tolerance and sometimes collude with Russian security services.
AP reporters Jim Heintz in Moscow, Jan Olsen in Stockholm, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Jari Tanner in Helsinki and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.
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