Skip the hysteria. What you need to know about the big ransomware attack.

Summary:  Let’s take a break from the media hysteria about the massive global attack by software built by the NSA. Cybersecurity expert Marcus Ranum explains why hospitals were the focus of the attack, why organizations are so vulnerable after a decade of warnings, and what will create effective defenses. This continues our years of coverage about cybersecurity, one of the most important frontiers of 21stC conflict. Second of two posts today.

“At the moment we are in the face of an escalating threat, the numbers are going up. I am worried about how the numbers will continue to grow when people go to work and turn their machines on Monday morning.”
— Rob Wainwrigh (the executive director of Europol) on ITV’s “Preston on Sunday”, from the NYT’s “Cyberattack’s Impact Could Worsen in ‘Second Wave’ of Ransomware“.


The Massive Ransomware Attack – and the Most Boring Topic in IT Security

By Marcus Ransom. From the FreeThought Blogs.
Reposted with his generous permission.

Today the news is all a’flutter about the massive malware/extortion attack on hospitals all over the place. The sky is falling!

What’s happening? Many companies have really bad security, and have comfortably had it for a long time. Medical informatics is particularly hard because of a “these hands have been touched by god!” attitude from doctors. Doctors are the second worst ‘users’ you can have, after politicians, in terms of blockheaded self-importance and risk profile.

Combine this with industry regulation that makes it harder to update software on devices. There’s a really bad negative synergy with device certification: to get lawyers to sign off that a device is suitable for hospital use it has to be in a specific, documented, configuration – which means that if your device is certified, you don’t patch it or update it. So there are plenty of patient monitors out there running old versions of Windows that a hacker can blow straight through. In principle, that would be OK except that those devices are not on isolated device networks, so if Dr Jones clicks on a PDF from that says “X-ray results for your patient” and gets their machine owned, now the hacker is on the backend network where everything is reachable.

Ransomware explained

There are a lot of obvious things that can and should have been being done, but the certification process, plus “oh, we have a firewall so it’s OK!” concept have act to block any demand for better security. There is still a great deal of “hard shell around a soft, chewy center” as Bill Cheswick described firewalls back in the mid 1980s. Some organizations realized that malware was going to be a problem, and others didn’t. The two that have had their heads most thoroughly in the sand are medical, and government. Often, you’ve got a situation where a hospital network, with thousands of authorized users, is going to be completely open shortly after one user clicks on the wrong attachment. Worse, some of the devices and internal servers are not treated as core infrastructure and are not under system administration.

My first encounter with computer security was when I was a young systems-pup at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1987, managing a cluster of Sun-2/110s and a couple of Pyramid 9080s, and one of my Pyramids started getting login and FTP attempts from another Sun system that I recognized was one of the controllers for the research MRI machines. It was highly unusual for an MRI to be trying to log into things, so I picked up a phone…  It turned out later that someone had put a connection to the University, so as to be able to exchange email with the medical school faculty, and Johns Hopkins University was an early ARPAnet node because of the H-bomb designers in the Applied Physics Lab. (I was on the “internet” in 1981 as an undergrad) Someone had come in through the University, broken into a default account on the MRI, and was having a look around. We put some filtering rules in the router and changed a lot of passwords but generally nobody got very excited about security until the mid 1990s.

Excitement about security comes in waves. I’ve always thought it’s basic humdrum but that’s because I’ve always thought it was a matter for consistent effort not a panic – respond – panic – respond cycle. Right now, there’s a lot of panicking and responding going on. It’s an International Cyberattack: “What We Know and Don’t Know About the International Cyberattack“.  Actually, no, it’s just a large-scale extortion campaign in which a bunch of hackers have decided to act on a lot of targets at once. This is nothing new: the low-hanging fruit are getting hit. As I said last summer (On Data and Backups): if you can get hit by cryptolocker, you will be hit. So be prepared or be prepared to suffer. If you’re an IT practitioner and your organization doesn’t do its backups, you’re a candidate for losing your job and having it migrate to the cloud. Not a candidate: it’s inevitably your future.

Edward Snowden, unfortunately, weighs in and he’s got an axe to grind.

This is really not the NSA’s fault. It’s a terrible idea that they maintain and build attack tools, and it’s incredibly stupid that they can’t keep them secret. The real problem is not the specific vulnerability, it’s that hospitals have such lamentable endpoint security that people are falling for basic phishing exploits and their servers aren’t immediately recoverable.  (NYT: “U.K. Health Service Ignored Warnings for Months“.)

Cloud systems have similar problems. I was talking to an organization the other day that had a lot of stuff out at AWS and was extorted for a lot of money by an attacker who discovered that they had all their system images and all the backups of their systems images in the cloud. So, the extortionist deleted the backups then asked money not to delete the remaining images. As I said last summer: unless you have three copies of your data and one is offline, and none of them are in the same place, you don’t really own your data you’re just borrowing it.

I don’t like that Snowden tried to make this about NSA. It’s more about mediocre system administration practices. And, if you’re a patient or you have medical records or are about to lie down on a table for some tele-operated surgery, you might want to think about that. Snowden asking about NSA building attacks against Windows XP is missing the point that: hospitals should not be running Windows XP. And doctors shouldn’t be reading their email with local administrator privileges, etc. There’s a whole great shovel-load of basic security precautions that are apparently not being taken at some very important hospitals around the world.

Announcement that you will have a bad day.

Ransomware notice

What’s the most boring topic in IT security?

Configuration Management (CM). Good CM practices are what separate Amazon and Google and ADP and Facebook from the rest of us. When you hear about Google’s model for repairing a failing system (“unplug it and slap a new one in”) or you use Amazon’s elastic server cloud – that’s all driven by automated system administration. They have a systems administration fan-out where it’s not one administrator to a cluster of five machines (like I was back in my distant hospital days) it’s one administrator to five thousand machines. And the notion of “machine” has become a squishy concept – it’s more like “capabilities” in the cloud. Stuff to do things to gets routed to places where stuff gets done and it’s all dynamic.

Computer security, as a problem, exists largely because system administration is harder than it ought to be, and organizations have been cheap about system administration and configuration management – they’d done IT at an amateur level, to save costs – and they’ll do it as long as the perceived costs of being bad at IT don’t overwhelm their imagined cost-savings by moving from mainframes to departmental computing and local data centers. The cloud is mainframe 2.0: a massive well-managed computing infrastructure where the user can’t screw up the configuration. That we have this problem at all is because organizations have been able to cheap out about the costs, and continue to pass the costs of their failures on the customer.

This melt-down that the hospitals are experiencing is an outcome of bad cost/benefit analysis.

It would have been cheaper to take the downtime to update systems. It would have been cheaper to put critical systems on separate networks. It would have been cheaper to actually design your networks for performance and reliability instead of letting them evolve based on what’s easiest to get working. Network administration, like system administration, is not just plugging a wire into a switch and patting yourself on the back when the green LED comes on. Did you notice how this outbreak affected the cloud players? Yeah, me neither.

Either you will professionalize and automate your system administration and configuration management, or you will continue to suffer unpredictable periodic catastrophes, and your business will fail or your IT organization will get plowed under and moved to the cloud.


I think NSA and CIA and other intelligence agencies’ “HACK THE WHOLE WORLD” attitude is short-sighted and stupid because it does result in security being weakened somewhat. But worrying about weakening it somewhat is silly when you’re talking about organizations that don’t have good disaster recovery, backups, endpoint control, and configuration management. It’s like blaming the particular bridge pylon you slam into when you’re drunk driving.

NSA is one of the agencies that is partially responsible for helping improve US government security. Trying to hack the whole world certainly doesn’t do that. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the best defense is a strong defense. Why are government agencies’ (including the CIA and NSA!) security so lame? Why are hospital’s security at such a level of lame? Defending is harder than attacking, and configuration management is a critical defensive technique that everyone is unwilling to do because “it’s hard” or “the users will complain.”  Just remember that when you lie down for tele-operated surgery.

A tip ‘o the hat to Shiv, who triggered this rant.

Some useful news stories about the event

Marcus Ranum
Marcus Ranum

About the author

Marcus J. Ranum is a cybersecurity consultant and author of The Myth of Homeland Security (2003).

He is a world-renowned expert on security system design and implementation. He is recognized as an early innovator in firewall technology, and the implementor of the first commercial firewall product. Since the late 1980′s, he has designed a number of groundbreaking security products including the DEC SEAL, the TIS firewall toolkit, the Gauntlet firewall, and NFR’s Network Flight Recorder intrusion detection system.

He has been involved in every level of operations of a security product business, from developer, to founder and CEO of NFR. Marcus has served as a consultant to many FORTUNE 500 firms and national governments, as well as serving as a guest lecturer and instructor at numerous high-tech conferences. In 2001, he was awarded the TISC “Clue” award for service to the security community, and the ISSA Lifetime Achievement Award. Marcus is Chief Of Security for Tenable Security, Inc., where he is responsible for research in open source logging tools, and product training. He serves as a technology advisor to a number of start-ups, established concerns, and venture capital groups.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by Marcus Ranum, about Cyber-security and Cyber-crime, and especially these…

  1. The Best Defense Is a Strong Defense. Never Fight a Land War in Cyberspace — By Marcus Ranum.
  2. Unraveling the Complexities of Cyber Terrorism, by Edwin Covert.
  3. Complacency in Cyberspace May Be Our Biggest Vulnerability, by Emilio Iasiello.
  4. Is the best defense a strong offense in cybersecurity? — By Emilio Iasiello.
  5. Stratfor: it’s the breakout year for cybercrime! How do we fight it?
  6. After the largest cyberattack ever, here’s how to defend against the next & bigger ones — by Marcus Ranum.
  7. Cybercrime: Now More Profitable Than The Drug Trade.

8 thoughts on “Skip the hysteria. What you need to know about the big ransomware attack.

  1. Thanks much for this pro-sanity post. I am just an ordinary user but I remembered Cliff Stolls book “The Cuckoos Egg” when you mentioned the MRI machine. I highly recommend it–see below.

    The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (1989). From the publisher:

    “Cliff Stoll was an astronomer turned systems manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab when a 75-cent accounting error alerted him to the presence of an unauthorized user on his system. The hacker’s code name was “Hunter” — a mystery invader hiding inside a twisting electronic labyrinth, breaking into U.S. computer systems and stealing sensitive military and security information. Stoll began a one-man hunt of his own, spying on the spy — and plunged into an incredible international probe that finally gained the attention of top U.S. counterintelligence agents. The Cuckoo’s Egg is his wild and suspenseful true story — a year of deception, broken codes, satellites, missile bases, and the ultimate sting operation — and how one ingenious American trapped a spy ring paid in cash and cocaine, and reporting to the KGB.”


  2. From a practical organizational comment and in terms of what people need to do at their work, I agree with your comment. I do NOT agree that this is any more important overall than the NSA angle, however. I do think focusing on the NSA is important and relevant, and liked these comments, and as they point out, if nothing else this approach to cybersecurity is a huge swindle of taxpayers: “Top NSA Whistleblower: Ransomware Hack Due to “Swindle of the Taxpayers” by Intelligence Agencies.”

    The bottom line is that our intelligence services should start concentrating on actually defending us, rather than focusing their resources on offensive mischief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Texan,

      “The bottom line is that our intelligence services should start concentrating on actually defending us, rather than focusing their resources on offensive mischief.”

      That nails it. But as usual with our military and security agencies, they pursue “own goals” rather than our goals. This will remain so until the public — through elected officials — forces change.


  3. Really good info.
    “It’s hard…users will complain..”
    Quite the contrary, re: Docs and Hospitals and providers. Everyone knows how lame and ineffective their IT attempts are. Ask your local Pharmacy about their efforts to get a Prescription refilled. Try to email for an Appointment if they have an email account, thatbis used.

    “That we have this problem at all is because organizations have been able to cheap out about the costs, and continue to pass the costs of their failures on the customer.,
    Yeah, cheap out. An old song.
    Another fine example of very poor leadership and management and a full lack of responsibility.

    Poor response and readership here?
    How many of us have an offline physical backup of our data?

    Thx for the posting clarification of the latest Terror lurking in our scary world!


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