(PARIS) — A new and highly virulent outbreak of malicious data-scrambling software appears to be causing mass disruption across Europe, hitting Ukraine especially hard.
The second-largest drugmaker in the United States has confirmed it's been affected by the cyberattack. In a message sent using its verified Twitter account, Merck said Tuesday that its computer network was "compromised" as part of a global attack. Merck has global locations including in Ukraine.
Company and government officials reported serious intrusions at the Ukrainian power grid, banks and government offices, where one senior official posted a photo of a darkened computer screen and the words, "the whole network is down." Ukraine's prime minister said the attack was unprecedented but that "vital systems haven't been affected."
Russia's Rosneft oil company also reported falling victim to hacking, as did Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk.
"We are talking about a cyberattack," said Anders Rosendahl, a spokesman for the Copenhagen-based group. "It has affected all branches of our business, at home and abroad."
The number of companies and agencies reportedly affected by the ransomware campaign was piling up fast, and the electronic rampage appeared to be rapidly snowballing into a real-world crisis. Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblaad says that container ship terminals in Rotterdam run by a unit of Maersk were also affected. Rosneft said that the company narrowly avoided major damage.
"The hacking attack could have led to serious consequences but neither the oil production nor the processing has been affected thanks to the fact that the company has switched to a reserve control system," the company said.
There's very little information about what might be behind the disruption at each specific company, but cybersecurity experts rapidly zeroed in on a form of ransomware, the name given to programs that hold data hostage by scrambling it until a payment is made.
"A massive ransomware campaign is currently unfolding worldwide," said Romanian cybersecurity company Bitdefender. In a telephone interview, Bitdefender analyst Bogdan Botezatu said that he had examined samples of the program and that it appeared to be nearly identical to GoldenEye, one of a family of hostage-taking programs that has been circulating for months.
It's not clear whether or why the ransomware has suddenly become so much more potent, but Botezatu said that it was likely spreading automatically across a network, without the need for human interaction. Self-spreading software, often described as "worms," are particularly feared because they can spread rapidly, like a contagious disease.
"It's like somebody sneezing into a train full of people," said Botezatu. "You just have to exist there and you're vulnerable."
The world is still recovering from a previous outbreak of ransomware, called WannaCry or WannaCrypt, which spread rapidly using digital break-in tools originally created by the U.S. National Security Agency and recently leaked to the web.
This particular variant of ransomware leaves a message with a contact email; several messages sent to the address were not immediately returned.