Dozens of countries hit by huge cyberextortion attack

A sign marks the Microsoft office in Cambridge

By Robert Hutton, Jeremy Kahn and Jordan Robertson.

R Jaya Lakshmi, superintendent of police, Tirupati Urban, said the "ransomware" encrypted data in some police stations, adding that they were not able to access data and hackers were demanding ransom in digital currency bitcoin to restore access.

All told, several cybersecurity firms said they had identified the malicious software, which so far has been responsible for tens of thousands of attacks, in more than 60 countries.

In March, Microsoft patched the vulnerability that the ransomware exploits - but only for newer Windows systems.

In either case, this should be yet another reminder regarding why exploits should be disclosed by governments rather than kept secret.

The researcher, tweeting as @MalwareTechBlog, said registering a domain name used by the malware stops it from spreading, though it can not help computers already affected.

In the United Kingdom, hospitals in London, northwest England and other parts of the country reported problems and asked patients not to come to the hospitals unless it was an emergency. "Customers running Windows 10 were not targeted by the attack today".

Britain's home secretary says about one in five National Health Service trusts have been hit by the worldwide ransomware cyberattack, and that all but six are now back to normal.

Spain's Telefonica, a global broadband and telecommunications company, was among the companies hit.

It also may never be known how much the hackers have netted from the ransomware attack. "It's not targeted at the NHS - it feels random in terms of where it's happened".

The U.K.'s National Health Service was one of the biggest organizations hit by the ransomware. "Windows XP is not a good platform for keeping your data secure", she said.

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"A lot of people are going to go to work on Monday and click on a link in their mail - completely oblivious that all of this is going on or have heard about it and think that it's over - and suddenly wipe out their whole company", Gazeley said from Hong Kong.

He said many NHS hospitals in Britain use Windows XP software, introduced in 2001, and as government funding for the health service has been squeezed "IT budgets are often one of the first ones to be reduced".

UK Prime Minister Theresa May says the hospital cyberattack is part of a wider global attack.

The virus, known as WanaCrypt0r, Wanacry or WCry, encrypts an infected computer's files and demands a ransom of $300 to decrypt them again. Fortune reported Thursday that the price of bitcoin was at an all-time high.

A 22-year-old security researcher in the U.K, who goes by MalwareTech, registered that domain to analyze the attack, but it turned out the ransomware needed it to remain unregistered to keep spreading.

The worldwide effort to extort cash from computer users is so unprecedented that Microsoft quickly changed its policy, announcing security fixes available for free for the older Windows systems still used by millions of individuals and smaller businesses.

However official government advice on both sides of the Atlantic is not to pay criminals behind such attacks. There have been so many high-profile hacks that if a fix is available, it's the user's responsibility to download it, he said. But Microsoft has "been in a worse state in the past".

NHS Merseyside, which operates several hospitals in northwest England, tweeted that "following a suspected national cyberattack, we are taking all precautionary measures possible to protect our local NHS systems and services".

Ransomware attacks have also been soaring. Once inside an organization's network, the malware behind the attack spread rapidly using this vulnerability.

Krishna Chinthapalli, a doctor at Britain's National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery who wrote a paper on cybersecurity for the British Medical Journal, warned that British hospitals' old operating systems and store of confidential patient information made them an ideal target for blackmailers.

WannaCry is a form of ransomware that locks up files on your computer and encrypts them in a way that you can not access them anymore.

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