In the most recent issue of the technology magazine, WIRED, Andy Greenberg explains the Russian cyber-attack known as NotPetya that hammered first Ukraine, but then the whole world back in summer of 2017. This is perhaps the most exhaustive report yet on the attack that confused and crippled major companies around the world, as well as many smaller ones. In the smoldering war over the eastern parts of Ukraine, Russia has been willing to use its adversary as a test ground for all sorts of new cyber weaponry. NotPetya was one of those, and the story Greenberg tells is not one to be ignored. He writes (abridged):
Crippled ports. Paralyzed corporations. Frozen government agencies. How a single piece of code crashed the world.
IT WAS A perfect sunny summer afternoon in Copenhagen when the world’s largest shipping conglomerate began to lose its mind.
The headquarters of A.P. Møller-Maersk sits beside the breezy, cobblestoned esplanade of Copenhagen’s harbor. A ship’s mast carrying the Danish flag is planted by the building’s northeastern corner, and six stories of blue-tinted windows look out over the water, facing a dock where the Danish royal family parks its yacht.
In the building’s basement, employees can browse a corporate gift shop, stocked with Maersk-branded bags and ties, and even a rare Lego model of the company’s gargantuan Triple-E container ship, a vessel roughly as large as the Empire State Building laid on its side, capable of carrying another Empire State Building–sized load of cargo stacked on top of it.
That gift shop also houses a technology help center, a single desk manned by IT troubleshooters next to the shop’s cashier. And on the afternoon of June 27, 2017, confused Maersk staffers began to gather at that help desk in twos and threes, almost all of them carrying laptops.
On the machines’ screens were messages in red and black lettering. Some read “repairing file system on C:” with a stark warning not to turn off the computer. Others, more surreally, read “oops, your important files are encrypted” and demanded a payment of $300 worth of bitcoin to decrypt them.
Across the street, an IT administrator named Henrik Jensen was working in another part of the Maersk compound, an ornate white-stone building that in previous centuries had served as the royal archive of maritime maps and charts. (Henrik Jensen is not his real name.
Like almost every Maersk employee, customer, or partner I interviewed, Jensen feared the consequences of speaking publicly for this story.) Jensen was busy preparing a software update for Maersk’s nearly 80,000 employees when his computer spontaneously restarted.
Jensen looked up to ask if anyone else in his open-plan office of IT staffers had been so rudely interrupted. And as he craned his head, he watched every other computer screen around the room blink out in rapid succession.
“I saw a wave of screens turning black. Black, black, black. Black black black black black,” he says. The PCs, Jensen and his neighbors quickly discovered, were irreversibly locked. Restarting only returned them to the same black screen.
All across Maersk headquarters, the full scale of the crisis was starting to become clear. Within half an hour, Maersk employees were running down hallways, yelling to their colleagues to turn off computers or disconnect them from Maersk’s network before the malicious software could infect them, as it dawned on them that every minute could mean dozens or hundreds more corrupted PCs. Tech workers ran into conference rooms and unplugged machines in the middle of meetings. Soon staffers were hurdling over locked key-card gates, which had been paralyzed by the still-mysterious malware, to spread the warning to other sections of the building.
Disconnecting Maersk’s entire global network took the company’s IT staff more than two panicky hours. By the end of that process, every employee had been ordered to turn off their computer and leave it at their desk. The digital phones at every cubicle, too, had been rendered useless in the emergency network shutdown
Around 3 pm, a Maersk executive walked into the room where Jensen and a dozen or so of his colleagues were anxiously awaiting news and told them to go home. Maersk’s network was so deeply corrupted that even IT staffers were helpless.
The story of NotPetya isn’t truly about Maersk, or even about Ukraine. It’s the story of a nation-state’s weapon of war released in a medium where national borders have no meaning, and where collateral damage travels via a cruel and unexpected logic: Where an attack aimed at Ukraine strikes Maersk, and an attack on Maersk strikes everywhere at once.
Read more here.
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