June 12, 2017
Experts Corner

WannaCry cyber attack highlights need for proactive data security

Matt Kozloski

The recent WannaCry cyber attack affected targets all over the world including major companies such as FedEx. The computer virus most notably temporarily shut down portions of Britain's healthcare system.

Could something similar happen here? While thankfully no surgeries were interrupted stateside like they were in the UK, companies in Connecticut were affected. What can we take away from one of the largest cyber attacks in history?

Patch promptly

Though widespread, WannaCry is easy to defend against from a technical standpoint. It's a form of ransomware — it scans for vulnerable systems, infiltrates them automatically, and then locks them until a ransom is paid.

When a new weakness in Windows software that can be exploited this way comes to light, Microsoft releases a "patch" to close the gap. These are those lovely software update alerts you see all too often on your screen.

Microsoft released a patch to protect against WannaCry weeks before the malware spanned the world, but those who didn't install the patch (or who use old versions of Windows that are no longer supported by Microsoft such as Windows XP) were sitting ducks. Ultimately, Microsoft did release a patch for outdated versions of Windows — something it essentially never does — which speaks to the severity of the situation.

Installing patches can be a pain, especially if you have a lot of machines, but you can use tools like Windows Group Policy and Windows Server Update Services, included with Windows, to automate this. There's always the option of offloading the task to a managed service provider and letting that provider handle all the updates.

It could have been worse

It's not uncommon to encounter businesses in Connecticut using out-of-date operating systems. Smaller medical practices, for instance, are focused on providing care, not securing their environments. They often don't view themselves as a target, but an indiscriminate cyber attack like WannaCry can potentially affect anyone with the vulnerability that enables it.

While the most basic cybersecurity measures can fend off WannaCry, malware targeted to specific companies or industries can be more difficult to block.

Phishing — the longstanding hacker practice of tricking people into giving up their passwords — has gotten more sophisticated in recent years with hackers spoofing popular websites, or researching their targets to send malicious emails that are very believable.

Once software patches are in place, an excellent next-step toward strong cybersecurity is to hold training sessions for staff on a regular basis to keep them up to speed on best practices and what to look for.

In addition to patching and training, having a backup system in place to restore data gives you more options in the event that you do get hacked.

If your data is locked by a ransomware attack and you can restore it from backup, you've dodged most of the pain the cyber attack was meant to cause. Plus, you can't assume that paying the ransom will work — hackers have been known to keep the money and the data — and you don't want to be funding hackers anyway.

A proactive approach is key

One reason WannaCry was so effective is because it uses a hacking tool that was developed as a weapon. Information used by the hackers in the cyber attack was gleaned from a National Security Agency leak.

If nothing else, the origin of WannaCry is an indication that every company must take ownership of their own cybersecurity.

Despite the best intentions, entities like Microsoft and the NSA can't fully protect businesses against hackers without active participation from the businesses themselves. That can mean enlisting the help of an IT partner or allocating responsibility internally to make sure someone is accountable for protecting the organization's data and is adequately resourced to do so.

Matt Kozloski is vice president of professional services at Kelser Corp., a technology consulting firm in Glastonbury.

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