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Alert researcher helped stem global cyberattack

The cyberattack that spread malicious software around the world, shutting down networks at hospitals, banks, and government agencies, was thwarted by a young British researcher and an inexpensive domain registration, with help from another 20-something security engineer in the US.

This is screengrab taken from the website of the East and North Hertfordshire NHS trust as Britain's National Health Service is investigating "an issue with IT"  Friday May 12, 2017. Several British hospitals say they are having major computer problems Hospitals in London, northwest England and other parts of the country are reporting problems with their computer systems as the result of an apparent cyberattack,.(PA via AP)Britain’s National Cyber Security Center and others were hailing the cyber security researcher, a 22-year-old identified online only as “MalwareTech,” who – unintentionally at first – discovered a so-called “kill switch” that halted the unprecedented outbreak.

By then, the “ransomware” attack had crippled Britain’s hospital network and computer systems in several countries in an effort to extort money from computer users. But the researcher’s actions may have saved companies and governments millions of dollars and slowed the outbreak before computers in the US were more widely affected.

MalwareTech is part of a large global cyber security community, working independently or for security companies, who are constantly watching for attacks and working together to stop or prevent them, often sharing information via Twitter. It’s not uncommon for them to use aliases, either to protect themselves from retaliatory attacks or for privacy.

In a blog post Saturday, MalwareTech explained he returned from lunch with a friend on Friday and learned that networks across Britain’s health system had been hit by ransomware, tipping him off that “this was something big.”

He began analyzing a sample of the malicious software and noticed its code included a hidden web address that wasn’t registered. He said he “promptly” registered the domain, something he regularly does to try to discover ways to track or stop malicious software.

Across an ocean, Darien Huss, a 28-year-old research engineer for the cyber security firm Proofpoint, was doing his own analysis. The western Michigan resident said he noticed the authors of the malware had left in a feature known as a kill switch. Huss took a screen shot of his discovery and shared it on Twitter.

Soon, he and MalwareTech were communicating about what they’d found: That registering the domain name and redirecting the attacks to MalwareTech’s server had activated the kill switch, halting the ransomware’s infections.

Huss and others were calling MalwareTech a hero on Saturday, with Huss adding that the global cybersecurity community was working “as a team” to stop the infections from spreading.

“I think the security industry as a whole should be considered heroes,” he said. (AP)

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