The Petya ransomware is starting to look like a cyberattack in disguise

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The haze of yesterday’s massive ransomware attack is clearing, and Ukraine has already emerged as the epicenter of the damage. Kaspersky Labs reports that as many as 60 percent of the systems infected by the Petya ransomware were located within Ukraine, far more than anywhere else. The hack’s reach touched some of the country’s most crucial infrastructure including its central bank, airport, metro transport, and even the Chernobyl power plant, which was forced to move radiation-sensing systems to manual.

The ostensible purpose of all that damage was to make money — and yet there’s very little money to be found. Most ransomware flies under the radar, quietly collecting payouts from companies eager to get their data back and decrypting systems as payments come in. But Petya seems to have been incapable of decrypting infected machines, and its payout method was bizarrely complex, hinging on a single email address that was shut down almost as soon as the malware made headlines. As of this morning, the Bitcoin wallet associated with the attack had received just $10,000, a relatively meager payout by ransomware standards.

It leads to an uncomfortable question: what if money wasn’t the point? What if the attackers just wanted to cause damage to Ukraine? It’s not the first time the country has come under cyberattack. (These attacks have typically been attributed to Russia.) But it would be the first time such an attack has come in the guise of ransomware, and has spilled over so heavily onto other countries and corporations.

Because the virus has proven unusually destructive in Ukraine, a number of researchers have come to suspect more sinister motives at work. Peeling apart the program’s decryption failure in a post today, Comae’s Matthieu Suiche concluded a nation state attack was the only plausible explanation. “Pretending to be a ransomware while being in fact a nation state attack,” Suiche wrote, “ is in our opinion a very subtle way from the attacker to control the narrative of the attack.”

Another prominent infosec figure put it more bluntly: “There’s no fucking way this was criminals.”

There’s already mounting evidence that Petya’s focus on Ukraine was deliberate. The Petya virus is very good at moving within networks, but initial attacks were limited to just a few specific infections, all of which seem to have been targeted at Ukraine. The highest-profile one was a Ukrainian accounting program called MeDoc, which sent out a suspicious software update Tuesday morning that many researchers blame for the initial Petya infections. Attackers also planted malware on the homepage of a prominent Ukraine-based news outlet, according to one researcher at Kaspersky.

In each case, the infections seem to specifically target Ukraine’s most vital institutions, rather than making a broader attempt to find lucrative ransomware targets. These initial infections are particularly telling because they were directly chosen by whoever set the malware in motion. Computer viruses often spread farther than their creators intended, but once Petya was on the loose, the attackers would have had no control over how far it reached. But the attackers had complete control over where they planted Petya initially, and they chose to plant it by some of the most central institutions in Ukraine.

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The broader political context makes Russia a viable suspect. Russia has been engaged in active military interventions in Ukraine since former president Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power in 2014. That has included the annexation of Crimea and the active movement of troops and equipment in the eastern region of the country, but also a number of more subtle activities. Ukraine’s power grid came under cyberattack in December 2015, an attack many interpreted as part of a hybrid attack by Russia against the country’s infrastructure. That hybrid-warfare theory extends to more conventional guerrilla attacks: the same day that Petya ripped through online infrastructure, Ukrainian colonel Maksim Shapoval was killed by a car bomb attack in Kiev.

All that evidence is still circumstantial, and there’s no hard link between yesterday’s attacks and any nation state. It could be Ukraine simply presented a soft target, and the attackers screwed up their payment and decryption systems out of simple carelessness. Functional or not, the software involved still has strong ties to traditional ransomware systems, and even if the attackers didn’t make much money off ransom payments, Petya was still collecting credentials and other data from infected machines, which could be valuable fodder for future attacks. That has led researchers like F-Secure’s Sean Sullivan to hold off on nation-state suspicions. “Maybe there’s multiple ways they’re working the money angle, but I think ultimately it’s about money,” Sullivan told me. “Tigers don’t change their stripes.”

Still, the line between common criminals and state agents can be difficult to parse. A recent indictment in the Yahoo hacking case charged Russian officials alongside freelance hackers, and the division of labor was often unclear. Criminals can be enlisted as privateers, or agents can adopt criminal tactics as a way of disguising themselves. If the suspicions around Petya are correct, that line may be growing even thinner, as globe-spanning attacks get lost in the fog of war. With no clear path to a firm attribution, we may never be able to prove who was responsible for this week’s attacks, or what they hoped to achieve. For anyone digging out a Petya-bricked computer system, that clean getaway is adding insult to injury.

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