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Global cyber attack halts production at Aussie choc factory, cripples others

The virus is believed to have first taken hold on Tuesday in Ukraine where it silently infected computers.

Picture: Pixabay.com

FRANKFURT/MOSCOW/KIEV – A cyber attack wreaked havoc around the globe on Wednesday, crippling thousands of computers, disrupting operations at ports from Mumbai to Los Angeles and halting production at a chocolate factory in Australia.

The virus is believed to have first taken hold on Tuesday in Ukraine where it silently infected computers after users downloaded a popular tax accounting package or visited a local news site, national police and international cyber experts said.

The malicious code locked machines and demanded victims post a ransom worth $300 in bitcoins or lose their data entirely, similar to the extortion tactic used in the global WannaCry ransomware attack in May.

More than 30 victims paid up but security experts are questioning whether extortion was the goal, given the relatively small sum demanded, or whether the hackers were driven by destructive motives rather than financial gain.

Hackers asked victims to notify them by email when ransoms had been paid but German email provider Posteo quickly shut down the address, a German government cyber security official said.

Ukraine, the epicentre of the cyber strike, has repeatedly accused Russia of orchestrating attacks on its computer systems and critical power infrastructure since its powerful neighbour annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

The Kremlin, which has consistently rejected the accusations, said on Wednesday it had no information about the origin of the global cyber attack, which also struck Russian companies such as oil giant Rosneft and a steelmaker.

"No one can effectively combat cyber threats on their own, and, unfortunately, unfounded blanket accusations will not solve this problem," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

ESET, a Slovakian company that sells products to shield computers from viruses, said 80 percent of the infections detected among its global customer base were in Ukraine, with Italy second hardest hit with about 10 percent.

The aim of the latest attack appeared to be disruption rather than ransom, said Brian Lord, former deputy director of intelligence and cyber operations at Britain's GCHQ and now managing director at private security firm PGI Cyber.

"My sense is this starts to look like a state operating through a proxy ... as a kind of experiment to see what happens," Lord told Reuters on Wednesday.

ETERNAL BLUE

While the malware seemed to be a variant of past campaigns, derived from code known as Eternal Blue believed to have been developed by the US National Security Agency (NSA), experts said it was not as virulent as May's WannaCry attack.

Security researchers said Tuesday's virus could leap from computer to computer once unleashed within an organisation but, unlike WannaCry, it could not randomly trawl the internet for its next victims, limiting its scope to infect.

Bushiness that installed Microsoft's latest security patches from earlier this year and turned off Windows file-sharing features appeared to be largely unaffected.

There was speculation, however, among some experts that once the new virus had infected one computer it could spread to other machines on the same network, even if those devices had received a security update.

After WannaCry, governments, security firms and industrial groups advised businesses and consumers to make sure all their computers were updated with Microsoft security patches.

Austria's government-backed Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) said "a small number" of international firms appeared to be affected, with tens of thousands of computers taken down.

Security firms including Microsoft, Cisco's Talos and Symantec said they had confirmed some of the initial infections occurred when malware was transmitted to users of a Ukrainian tax software program called MEDoc.