It’s been three days since WannaCry ransomware attacks began rippling across the world, affecting more than 200,000 people and 10,000 organizations in 150 countries. And the threat of further infection still looms.
The pervasiveness of WannaCry reveals just how insidious wide-scale ransomware attacks can be, endangering public infrastructure, commerce, and even human lives. But the implications of the incident don’t end there. The attack has transformed from an acute situation to be dealt with by security experts to a symbol of how fundamentally vital cybersecurity protection is and the true scale of what can happen when systems and devices lack crucial defenses. The far-reaching consequences of WannaCry has also revived a nuanced and longstanding debate about just how much risk the public should be exposed to when intelligence agencies secretly take advantage of vulnerabilities in consumer products.
WannaCry’s evolution is the latest example. The attack spread by exploiting a Windows server vulnerability known as EternalBlue. The NSA discovered the bug and was holding on to it, but information about it and how to exploit it was stolen in a breach and then leaked to the public by a hacking group known as the Shadow Brokers. Microsoft issued a fix in mid-March, but many computers and servers never actually received the patch, leaving those systems open to attack. By holding on to this information instead of directly disclosing the vulnerability to manufacturers, this NSA espionage technique—ostensibly meant to protect people—caused a great deal of harm. And there’s no sign that groups like the NSA will discontinue this practice in the future.