The politics of the NHS WannaCrypt ransomware outbreak

You know you live in 2017 when the top headline on national newspapers relates to a ransomware attack on the National Heath Service, the UK Prime minister comments on the matter, and the the security researchers dealing with the outbreak are presented as heroic figures. As ever, The Register, has the most detailed and sophisticated technical article on the matter. But also strangely the most informative in terms of public policy. As if somehow, in our days, technical sophistication is a prerequisite also for sophisticated political comment on those matters. Other news outlets present a caricature, of the bad malware authors, the good security researcher and vendors working around the clock, the valiant government defenders, and a united humanity trying to beat the virus. I want to break that narrative open in this article, and discuss the actual political and social lessons we should be learning. In part to avoid similar disasters in the future.

First off, I am always surprised when such massive systemic outbreaks of malware, are blamed squarely on the author(s) of the malware itself, and the blame game ends there. It is without doubt that the malware author has a great share of responsibility. I personally think it is immoral to deploy ransomware in the wild, deny people access to their data, and seek to benefit from this. It is also a crime in the UK and elsewhere.

However, it is strange that a single author, or a small group of authors, without any major resources can have such a deep and widespread effect on major technological infrastructures. The absurdity becomes clear if we transpose the situation into the world of traditional engineering. Imagine all skyscrapers in major cities had to be evacuated, because a couple of teenagers with rocks were trying to blackmail business owners to pay up, to protect their precious glass windows. The fragility of software and IT systems seems to have no parallel in any other large scale engineering infrastructure — and this is not inherent, but the result of very specific micro-political, geo-political and economic decisions.

Lets take the WannaCrypt outbreak and look at the political and other social decisions that lead to the disaster — besides the agency of the malware authors:

  • The disaster was possible in part, and foremost, because IT systems within the UK critical NHS infrastructure are outdated — and for example rely on Windows XP that is not any more being maintained by Microsoft. Well, actually this is not strictly true: Microsoft does make security updates for Windows XP, but does not provide them for free — and instead Microsoft expects organizations that are locked in the OS to pay up to get patches and stay safe. So two key questions need to be asked …
  • Why is the NHS not upgrading to a new versions of Windows, or any other modern operating system? The answer is simple: line of business applications (LOB: from heath record management, specialist analysis and imaging software, to payroll) may not be compatible with new operating systems. On top of that a number of modern medical devices, such as large X-ray scanners or heart monitors, come with embedded computers running Windows XP — and only Windows XP. There is no way of upgrading them. The MEDJACK cyber-attacks were leveraging this to rampage through hospitals in 2015.
  • Is having LOB software tying you to an outdated OS, or medical devices costing millions that are not upgradeable, a fact of nature? No. It is down to a combination of terrible and naive procurement processes in health organizations, that do not take into account the need and costs if IT and security maintenance — and do not entrench it into the requirements and contracts for services, software and devices. It is also the result of the health software and devices industries being immature and unsophisticated as to the needs to secure IT. They reap the benefits of IT to make money, but without expending much of it to provide quality and security. The tragic state of security of medical devices has built the illustrious career of my friend Prof. Kevin Fu, who has found systemic attacks against implanted heart devices that could kill you, noob security bugs in medical device software, and has written extensively on the poor strategy to tackle these problem. So today’s attacks were a disaster waiting to happen — and expect more unless we learn the right lessons.
  • So given the terrible state of IT that prevents upgrading the OS, why is the NHS not paying up Microsoft to get security patches? That is because the government, and Jeremy Hunt in particular, back in 2014 decided to not pay up the money necessary to keep receiving security updates for Windows XP, despite being aware of the absolute reliance of the NHS on the outdated software. So in effect, a deliberate political decision was taken, at the highest level of the government to leave the NHS open to cyber attack. This is unlikely to be the last Windows XP security bug, so more are presumably to come.
  • Then there is the question of how malware authors, managed to get access to security bugs for windows XP? How did they get the tools necessary to attack such a mature, and rather common system, about 15 years after Windows XP was released, and only after it went out of maintenance? It turn out that the vulnerabilities they used, were in fact hoarded by the NSA as a cyber weapon — which was lost or stolen by hackers or leakers, and released into the wild! (The tool was codenamed EternalBlue). For may years, the computer security research community has been warning that stockpiling vulnerabilities in very common software for cyber-offense purposes, is dangerous. When those cyber weapons are lost, leaked, or even just used, there is proliferation of the technology necessary to attack, which criminals and foreign states can turn against critical infrastructure. This blog commented on the matter as recently as 8 March 2017 in a post entitled “What the CIA hack and leak teaches us about the bankruptcy of current “Cyber” doctrines”. This now feels like an unfortunately fulfilled prophesy, but the NHS attack was just the expected outcome of the US/UK and now common place doctrine around cyber — that contributes to, and leverages insecurity rather than security. Alternative public policy options exist of course.

So to summarize, besides the author of the malware, a number of other social and systemic factors contribute to making such cyber attacks possible: from poor security standards in heath informatics industries; poor procurement processes in heath organizations; lack of liability on any of the software vendors (incl. Microsoft) for providing insecure software or devices; cost-cutting from the government on NHS cyber security with no constructive alternatives to mitigate risks; and finally the UK/US cyber-offense doctrine that inevitably leads to proliferation of cyber-weapons and their use on civilian critical infrastructures.

It it those systemic factors that need to change to avoid future failures. Bad people wishing to make money from ransomware, or other badness, will always exist. There is a discipline devoted to preventing this, and it is called security engineering. It is time industry and goverment start taking its advice seriously.


This was originally posted on Conspicuous Chatter, the blog of Prof. George Danezis.

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