Microsoft President Decries Practice of Weaponizing Software Flaws

Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and top lawyer, calls on governments to rethink the stockpiling of software vulnerabilities.

Ransomware

It was a stress-filled weekend for many IT workers this past weekend as the WannaCry ransomware attack spread, crippling Windows systems worldwide. In fact, some hospitals in the United Kingdom were forced to shut down in the wake of the attack.

WannaCry is a weaponized exploit, part of a cyber-espionage toolkit that was allegedly stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). As word of the attack grabbed news headlines over the weekend, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, wrote that the "attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem," in a May 14 blog post.

"This is an emerging pattern in 2017," continued Smith. "We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world. Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage."

Smith went on to describe the situation as the equivalent of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles getting stolen from military stockpiles. John Bambenek, threat research manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity, called for more cooperation from the NSA and other three-letter agencies.

"Intelligence agencies will always be developing zero-days, but unlike traditional weapons, these tools can be repurposed quickly from devastating criminal attacks," said Bambenek in an email statement. "The intelligence community should develop strong procedures that when such tools leak, they immediately give relevant information to software developers and security vendors so protections can be developed before attacks are seen in the wild."

Smith also noted that Microsoft had issued a patch for the vulnerability in the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol exploited by WannaCry on March 14. On Friday, May 12 the software giant had issued an update to Windows Defender, enabling the anti-malware product, which ships with Windows, to detect and block the ransomware. Meanwhile, a security researcher in the UK discovered a "kill switch" in WannaCry, further mitigating its impact.

Nonetheless, WannaCry had done its damage. Europol estimates that the ransomware had hit more than 200,000 victims across 150 countries. Telefonica, a Spanish telecommunications company, reported that some internal systems were affected, but that its network and services were not disrupted as a result.

And more infections may follow, warned Gavin Millard, technical director of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at cyber-security specialist Tenable.

"With the success of the initial infection of WannaCry, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the next iteration released soon," said Millard in an email remarks sent to eWEEK. "Although there has been a significant amount of interest in the media and inescapable coverage of the outbreak, many systems will still be lacking the MS17-010 patch required to mitigate the threat."

Millard encouraged IT personnel to patch their systems as soon as possible to head off the next WannaCry wave. For those systems that cannot be updated, he suggested blocking SMB traffic on ports 139 and/or 445.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of...