The latest sweeping ransomware assault bares some similarity to the WannaCry crisis that struck seven weeks ago. Both spread quickly, and both hit high-profile targets like large multinational companies and critical infrastructure providers. But while WannaCry’s many design flaws caused it to flame out after a few days, this latest ransomware threat doesn’t make the same mistakes.
Originally identified as Petya, a ransomware that first started circulating in 2016, the current attack now appears to be a Petya offshoot, with added refinements such as stronger encryption. Some researchers call this new iteration “NotPetya” or “GoldenEye,” while others still refer to it as Petya. Regardless of the name, it has already hit 2,000 targets, seizing the systems of high-profile victims like Danish shipping giant Maersk, US pharmaceutical company Merck, and multiple private and public institutions in Ukraine.
And while it owes its rapid spread in part to EternalBlue, the same stolen NSA exploit WannaCry leveraged, it lacks several of the traits that made WannaCry—which turned out to be an unfinished North Korean project gone awry—easier to stop.
“The quality of the code improves from iteration to iteration—this GoldenEye ransomware is pretty solid,” says Bogdan Botezatu, a researcher at the security firm Bitdefender. “We don’t get to catch a break.”
The most important WannaCry pitfall that this current round sidesteps? A kill switch that allowed researchers to neuter the ransomware around the world and drastically reduce the spread. The mechanism was a low-quality, possibly unfinished feature meant to help the ransomware avoid analysis. It backfired spectacularly. So far, GoldenEye shows no signs of containing such a glaring error.
Additionally, WannaCry spread between networks across the internet like a worm, relying almost entirely on EternalBlue to get in and hitting systems that hadn’t yet downloaded Microsoft’s patch for that vulnerability. This new ransomware also targets devices that somehow still aren’t secured against EternalBlue, but can deploy other infection options as well. For example, the attackers seem to be spreading the ransomware through the software update feature of a Ukrainian program called MeDoc, and possibly through Microsoft Word documents laced with malicious macros.