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08:02

Bad malware, worse reporting

The Wannacry malware that has infected some UK hospital computers should interest not just security researchers but also people interested in what drives fake news.

Some made errors of fact: the Daily Mail inititally reported the ransom demand as 300 bitcoin, or £415,000, rather than $300 in bitcoin. Others made errors of logic: the Indy, for example, reported that “Up to 90 percent of NHS computers still run XP, released in 2001”, citing as its source a BMJ article which stated that 90% of trusts run this version of Windows. And some made errors of concurrency. After dinner I found inquiries from journalists about my fight with the Prime Minister. My what? Eventually I found that the Guardian had followed something Mrs May’s spokesman had said (“not aware of any evidence that patient data has been compromised”) with something I’d said a couple of hours earlier (“The NHS are saying that patient privacy hasn’t been compromised, but if significant numbers of hospitals have been negligently running unpatched computers for two months after the patch came out, how do they know?”). The Home Secretary later helpfully glossed the PM’s stonewall as “No patient data has been accessed or transferred in any way” but leaving the get-out-of-jail card “that’s the information we’ve been given.”

Many papers caught the international political aspect: that the vulnerability was discovered by the NSA, kept secret rather than fixed (contrary to the advice of Obama’s NSA review group), then stolen from the CIA by the Russians and published via wikileaks. Scary stuff, eh? And we read of some surprising overreactions, such as the GP who switched off his networking as a precaution and found he couldn’t access any of his patients’ records.

As luck would have it, yesterday was the day that I gave my talk on entomology – the classification of software bugs and other security vulnerabilities – to my first-year security and software engineering class. So let’s try to look at it calmly as I’d expect of a student writing an assignment.

The first point is that there’s not a really lot of this malware. The NHS has over 200 hospitals, and the typical IT director is a senior clinician supported by technicians. Yet despite having their IT run by well-meaning amateurs, only 16 NHS organisations have been hit, according to the Register and Kaspersky – including several hospitals.

So the second point is that when the Indy says that “The NHS is a perfect combination of sensitive data and insecure storage. And there’s very little they can do about it” the answer is simple: in well over 90% of NHS organisations, the well-meaning amateurs managed perfectly well. What they did was to keep their systems patched up-to-date; simple hygiene, like washing your hands after going to the toilet.

The third takeaway is that it’s worth looking at the actual code. A UK researcher did so and discovered a kill switch.

Now I am just listening on the BBC morning news to a former deputy director of GCHQ who first cautions against alarmist headlines and argues that everyone develops malware; that a patch had been issued by Microsoft halfway through March; that you can deal with ransomware by keeping decent backups; and that paying ransom will embolden the bad guys. However he claims that it’s clearly an organised criminal attack. (when it could be one guy in his bedroom somewhere) and says that the NCSC should look at whether there is some countermeasure that everyone should have taken (for answer see above).

So our fourth takeaway is that although the details matter, so do the economics of security. When something unexpected happens, you should not just get your head down and look at the code, but look up and observe people’s agendas. Politicians duck and weave; NHS managers blame the system rather than step up to the plate; the NHS as a whole turns every incident into a plea for more money; the spooks want to avoid responsibility for the abuse of their stolen cyberweaponz, but still big up the threat and get more influence for a part of their agency that’s presented as solely defensive. And we academics? Hey, we just want the students to pay attention to what we’re teaching them.

Hope this helps!

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