TENS of thousands of computers were hit by hackers last week, using a virus apparently stolen from the National Security Agency.
Cybersecurity experts say a ransomware tool named Eternal Blue took control of thousands of computers in Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and Spain, and more than 90 other countries. The tool allowed hackers to render the computers inoperable until they pay a ransom.
Appropriately, the attack has become known as ?WannaCry. The extortion attempt was thwarted late Friday when a young cybersecurity researcher is credited with accidentally activating the kill switch on the malware.
The cyberattacks were directed at Microsoft Windows computers and networks that have not been updated recently. Newer software versions have protections against the ransomware. Patches had been sent out on older versions of the software.
"We have observed a massive peak in ... attacks today, with more than 36,000 detections so far," said Jakub Kroustek, a team leader for Avast Threat Lab.
More than a dozen British hospitals had to turn patients away after their computer systems were compromised. Spanish telecom Telefonica shut down all of its computers after a similar attack.
The NSA, one of the most secretive U.S. spy agencies, was the creator of the Eternal Blue. Someone stole it and a number of other tools and documents more than a year ago. Those thefts were boasted by ShadowBrokers, which released some files to prove they were genuine. One of those documents purported to show the NSA had hacked a Middle Eastern network of financial institutions using some of the cybertools.
The NSA is seen as one of the nation's first and best defenses against wide-scale cyberattacks.
Technology experts say that cyberattacks are becoming more aggressive and damaging as hackers believe they are beyond the reach of the law.
Members of Congress have been calling for a greater focus on cybersecurity for years. But among the federal agencies where it is easy to track spending priorities it is hard to tell whether anybody is taking the threats seriously. The NSA is not transparent in its funding or spending, so it is hard to say how well it has prepared for or prevented major attacks.
Based on the frequent reports of computer incursions that yield sensitive data on U.S. shoppers and retailers, there's more work to be done.