‘Only a matter of time’ until ransomware virus hits UAE, experts say

The virus has already hit more than 200,000 people in 150 countries.

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ABU DHABI // Experts warn that the WannaCry virus, which has hit more than 200,000 people in 150 countries, will strike here – and probably already has.

There has yet to be a case reported, partly because monitoring the scale of the attack is close to impossible, and because it hit on a Friday when businesses and government departments were closed.

“We haven’t seen reports of it in Dubai yet because people are just coming into work at the beginning of the week, but the country isn’t insulated from these attacks,” said Amir Kolahzadeh, chief executive and founder of internet security company IT Sec.

“Today and over this week people will begin to report the attacks.

“To the unsuspecting user it’s just a file or an event that happens all of a sudden. Next thing you know you’re another victim.”

Some people are embarrassed to report that they have been attacked or afraid that they might be implicated in it, Mr Kolahzadeh said.

The ransomware virus automatically encrypts users’ files on infected computers using older Windows software and demands a fee to decipher the data being held hostage.

To add further pressure the virus puts a time on the demand, automatically doubling the fee within three hours, and ultimately deleting the encrypted files within six hours.

“They are indiscriminate without regard to a certain person, group or affiliation,” Mr Kolahzadeh said.

The attack is being described as the biggest yet, targeting networks so entire companies or groups are hit at the same time.

Suhail Sukkary, an IT specialist and cyber crime expert at Abu Dhabi Education Council, said that the virus could present in many ways.

“It can even show up on WhatsApp,” Mr Sukkary said.

“People need to understand that there is no way to eliminate viruses from the world but they can do things to make sure they aren’t a victim.”

He suggested people avoid opening any files for the next few days, particularly as the virus spreads exponentially with each infected device.

Mr Kolahzadeh thinks that even with increasing global cooperation and strict penalties, hackers will always regard the risk as minimal when considering the scale of the rewards, which can often be millions of dollars a day.

“If someone is willing to perpetrate such a crime the severity of the punishment is the last thing he thinks of,” he said.

Mr Kolahzadeh called for even greater international cooperation to investigate of the attack but said it would not be the last large-scale attack of its kind.

“It’s like an arms race, it’s never going to stop,” he said.

“It will only get worse; the threat is only growing. Imagine in a some years’ time when flying cars are a thing and you’re driving around in a driverless Uber when an attack like this happens. What then?”

UAE cyber security company DarkMatter said that “while countries like the UK and Russia seem to be the hardest hit, there have been reports of the malware appearing on computers in the GCC as well”.

“This attack highlights just how critical it is for organisations to have a holistic approach to cyber security, including staying on top of security patches, threat intelligence, incident response and rock solid back-ups of all data,: he said. “Cyber threats are constantly evolving and without a defined strategy, your organisation is vulnerable.”