Are you vulnerable? How to protect against the global 'WannaCrypt ransomware attack'

The attack was the latest in a growing menace of "ransomware", in which hackers deliver files to computers that automatically encrypt their data, making it unusable - until a ransom is paid. "So they no longer get the security updates they should be". A large cyberattack crippled computer systems at hospitals across England on Friday, with appointments canceled, phone lines down and patients turned away.

The malicious software behind the onslaught appeared to exploit a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows that was supposedly identified by the US National Security Agency for its own intelligence-gathering purposes and was later leaked to the internet.

A spokesman for the European Union's police agency, Europol, says Britain and Spain have asked for its support as they investigate the ransomware cyberattacks in those countries.

The NHS confirmed this afternoon that 16 of its organisation had been hit by a ransomware attack, after numerous trusts had confirmed they were experiencing "significant problems" with IT and telephone networks. A security researcher who goes by the name MalwareTech has activated a sort of kill-switch in WannaCry that stops it from spreading.

The ransomware spread so quickly because it was delivered by a special digital code developed by the NSA to move from one unpatched computer to another, security experts said.

"Currently the spreading of the ransomware is slowed down dramatically because a researcher found a logic bug in the malware, not because the companies around the world are having good security practice", Matt Suiche, founder of Comae Technologies, a cybersecurity company in the United Arab Emirates. The WannaCry attack is so serious, though, Microsoft has chose to take action.

Many companies and individuals have not installed the fixes yet or are using older versions of Windows that Microsoft no longer supports and did not fix.

"The reason this is hitting so many computers at once is that they discovered a vulnerability in the most popular operating system in the world, in Microsoft windows", said John Carlin, former assistant attorney general for national security and an ABC News contributor.

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Microsoft fixed the problem in a patch it released in March, before a group calling itself the "Shadow Brokers" publicly released it online in April.

It could have been much worse if not for a young cybersecurity researcher who helped to halt its spread by accidentally activating a so-called "kill switch" in the malicious software. The server operates as a "sinkhole" to collect information about malware - and in Friday's case kept the malware from escaping.

FedEx appears to be the first USA -based target.

Affected users can restore their files from backups, if they have them, or pay the ransom; otherwise they risk losing their data entirely.

There is a high probability that Russian-language cybercriminals were behind the attack, said Aleks Gostev, chief cybersecurity expert for Kaspersky Labs.

"There are other criminals who've launched this attack, and they are ultimately responsible for this", he said from his home in Oxford, England.

"The impact on the US seems to be negligible - very tiny impact, very few victims", the senior intelligence official told ABC News on Saturday. "It's a handy thing to have, but it's a risky thing to have".

This is, however, akin to driving on bald tyres and declining to replace them when told your vehicle is at risk, and then blaming the auto company when you finally do crash. "And that's what's happening right now".

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