Ransomware cyberattack: UK works to restore NHS systems after ‘unprecedented’ hacking

Teams of technicians are working “round the clock” to restore hospital computer systems in Britain after a global cyberattack that hit nearly 100 countries crippled the UK’s health system.

The extortion attack, which locked up computers and held users’ files for ransom, was believed to be the biggest of its kind ever recorded, disrupting services in countries including the US, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, India and Taiwan.

Europol, the European Union’s police agency, said the onslaught was at “an unprecedented level and will require a complex international investigation to identify the culprits”.

The ransomware appeared to exploit a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows that was purportedly identified by the US National Security Agency (NSA) for its own intelligence-gathering purposes and was later leaked to the internet.

Two security firms — Kaspersky Lab and Avast — said they had identified the malicious software behind the attack 99 countries, although both said the attack hit Russia hardest.

The Russian Interior Ministry, which runs the country’s police, confirmed it was among those that fell victim to the “ransomware”, which typically flashes a message demanding payment to release the user’s data.

Spokesperson Irina Volk was quoted by the Interfax news agency Saturday as saying the problem had been “localised” and that no information was compromised.

A spokesperson for the Russian Health Ministry, Nikita Odintsov, said on Twitter that the cyber attacks on his ministry were “effectively repelled”.

The national railway system said that although it was attacked, rail network operations were unaffected.

Renault reportedly halted production in factories across France.

The attack also forced French car maker Renault to halt its production at sites in France in an effort to stop the malware from spreading.

Two Renault union members spoke on the condition they remain anonymous because of the sensitive situation.

The consequences for the company remained unclear. Renault officials were not immediately available for comment.

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said 45 public health organisations were hit, but she stressed that no patient data had been stolen.

The attack froze computers at hospitals across the country, with some cancelling all routine procedures. Patients were asked not to go to hospitals unless it was an emergency and even some key services like chemotherapy were cancelled.

British media had reported last year that most public health organisations were using an outdated version of Microsoft Windows that was not equipped with security updates.

Krishna Chinthapalli, a doctor at Britain’s National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery who wrote a paper on cybersecurity for the British Medical Journal, said many British hospitals use Windows XP software, introduced in 2001.

Security experts said the attack appeared to be caused by a self-replicating piece of software that enters companies and organisations when employees click on email attachments, then spreads quickly internally from computer to computer when employees share documents.

The security holes it exploits were disclosed several weeks ago by TheShadowBrokers, a mysterious group that has published what it said were hacking tools used by the NSA as part of its intelligence-gathering.

Shortly after that disclosure, Microsoft announced that it had already issued software “patches”, or fixes, for those holes, but many users have not yet installed the fixes or are using older versions of Windows.

In the US, FedEx Corp reported that its Windows computers were “experiencing interference” from malware, but would not say if it had been hit by ransomware.

Elsewhere in Europe, the attack also hit companies including Spain’s Telefonica, a global broadband and telecommunications company.

Germany’s national railway said that departure and arrival display screens at its train stations were affected, but there was no impact on actual train services. Deutsche Bahn said it deployed extra staff to busy stations to provide customer information, and recommended that passengers check its website or app for information on their connections.

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Other European organisations hit by the massive cyberattack included soccer clubs in Norway and Sweden, with IF Odd, a 132-year-old Norwegian soccer club, saying its online ticketing facility was down.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said there had been no confirmed reports of an impact on Australian organisations at this stage.