KIEV – The primary target of a crippling computer virus that spread from Ukraine across the world this week is highly likely to have been that country’s computer infrastructure, a top Ukrainian police official told Reuters on Thursday.
Cybersecurity firms are trying to piece together who was behind the computer worm, which has paralyzed thousands of machines worldwide, shutting down ports, factories and offices as it spread through internal organizational networks to an estimated 60 countries.
Ukrainian politicians were quick on Tuesday to blame Russia, but a Kremlin spokesman dismissed “unfounded blanket accusations.” Kiev has blamed Moscow for two previous cyberstrikes on the Ukrainian power grid and other attacks since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
A growing consensus among security researchers, armed with technical evidence, suggests the main purpose of the attack was to install new malware on computers at government and commercial organizations in Ukraine. Rather than extortion, the goal may be to plant the seeds of future sabotage, experts said.
International firms appear to have been hit through their operations in the country.
Slovakian security software firm ESET released statistics on Thursday showing 75 percent of the infections detected among its global customer base were in Ukraine, and that all of the top 10 countries hit were located in central, eastern or southern Europe.
The malicious code in the new virus encrypted data on computers and demanded victims pay a $300 ransom, similar to extortion tactic used in the global WannaCry ransomware attack in May.
Echoing working hypotheses from top cybersecurity firms, including Cisco and Kaspersky, a top Ukrainian official told Reuters that the ransom demands were likely a smokescreen.
“Since the virus was modified to encrypt all data and make decryption impossible, the likelihood of it being done to install new malware is high,” the official, who declined to be identified, wrote in a phone text message to Reuters.
Information Systems Security Partners (ISSP), a Kiev-based cyber research firm that has investigated previous cyberattacks against Ukraine, is pursuing the same line of inquiry.
ISSP said that given that few people actually paid the $300 demanded for removing the virus, money was unlikely to be the primary object of the attack.
“It’s highly likely that during this attack new attacks were set up,” said ISSP chairman Oleg Derevianko.
“At almost all organizations whose network domains were infected, not all computers went offline,” he said by phone. “Why didn’t they all go offline? We are trying to understand what they might have left on those machines that weren’t hit.”
Some cybersecurity researchers have said the fact that the Kremlin’s two flagship energy companies are victims of the attack suggests Moscow was not behind it.
Russian oil major Rosneft was one of the first companies to reveal it had been compromised by the virus and sources told Reuters on Thursday computers at state gas giant Gazprom has also been infected.