Australia and NZ largely escape global cyber attack

The cyberextortion attack hitting dozens of countries spread quickly and widely thanks to an unusual confluence of factors: A known and highly risky security hole in Microsoft Windows, tardy users who didn't apply Microsoft's March software fix, and a software design that allowed the malware to spread quickly once inside university, business and government networks.

The culprits used a digital code believed to have been developed by the US National Security Agency - and subsequently leaked as part of a document dump, according to researchers at the Moscow-based computer security firm Kaspersky Lab.

Interior Ministry: The Russian Interior Ministry acknowledged a ransomware attack on its computers, adding that less than 1% of computers were affected. Experts say it will be hard for them to replicate the conditions that allowed the so-called WannaCry ransomware (also known as WannaCrypt) to proliferate across the globe.

Its director Rob Wainwright added: "We have been concerned for some time". And that's for a simple reason: Individuals and organisations alike are fundamentally awful about keeping their computers up-to-date with security fixes.

Experts said the ransomware programme appears to support dozens of languages, showing that the hackers wanted to corrupt networks worldwide.

As a society, we are becoming over-reliant on computers and the internet.

So criminals turned to targeted attacks instead to stay below the radar. Secondly, users have been cautioned against opening attachments that they do not trust. Once it infects one computer within a network, it can spread to all the computers in that network "within seconds", said Israel Levy, the CEO of the cybersecurity firm Bufferzone. The spread of hacking attacks has made legal versions of software more popular, as they typically provide automatic updates of security upgrades.

"I highly suspect that, with the amount of coverage that this incident is getting, there are probably already people that are working to incorporate the exploit that was used for spreading", he said.

"When any technique is shown to be effective, there are nearly always copycats", said Steve Grobman, chief technology officer of McAfee, a security company in Santa Clara, California. Security agencies in affected countries were racing to find out.

And experts say the scope of the problem could expand as people return to work and fire up their computers.

Europol's Wainwright said few banks in Europe had been affected, having learned through the "painful experience of being the number one target of cyber crime" the value of having the latest cyber security in place. But they could still linger as low-grade infections that flare up from time to time.

The virus also has a wormlike features that looks for other vulnerable systems once it's embedded in your computer, which means it can spread to other computers in a network.

Conficker was more of a pest and didn't do major damage.

The attack held hospitals and other entities hostage by freezing computers, encrypting their data and demanding money through online bitcoin payment - $300 at first, rising to $600 before it destroys files hours later.

Ryan Kalember, senior vice president at Proofpoint Inc. which helped stop its spread, said the version without a kill switch was able to spread but was benign because it contained a flaw that wouldn't allow it to take over a computer and demand ransom to unlock files.

Security experts warn there is no guarantee that access will be granted after payment.

Cyber-attacks that have hit 150 countries since Friday should be treated by governments around the world as a "wake-up call", Microsoft says. "You're only safe if you patch ASAP".

"Whenever there is a new patch, there is a risk in applying the patch and a risk in not applying the patch", Mr Grobman said.

He also poured fuel on a long-running debate over how government intelligence services should balance their desire to keep software flaws secret - in order to conduct espionage and cyber warfare - against sharing those flaws with technology companies to better secure the internet. The ransomware exploits older versions of Microsoft's operating system software, such as Windows XP.

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