Questions to Ask After the WannaCry Attack

Published by

Major General (Ret.) Brett Williams

After last week’s devastating global ransomware attack, now known as WannaCry, directors will once again be questioning management teams to make sure the company is protected. The challenge is that most directors do not know what questions they should be asking.

If I were sitting on a board, this attack would prompt me to ask questions about the following three areas:

  • End of Life (EOL) software;
  • patching; and
  • disaster recovery.

EOL Software. EOL software is software that is no longer supported by the company that developed it in the first place, meaning that it is not updated or patched to protect against emerging threats. WannaCry took advantage of versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system that were beyond EOL and had well-known security vulnerabilities.

Typically, a company runs EOL software because they have a critical application that requires customized software that cannot run on a current operating system. This situation might force you to maintain an EOL version of Windows, for example, to run the software. In the instance of WannaCry, Windows XP and 8 in particular were targeted. Boards should be asking what risks are we taking by allowing management to continue running EOL software. Are there other options? Could we contract for the development of a new solution? If not, what measures have we taken to mitigate risks presented by relying on EOL software?

Other times companies run EOL software because they do not want to pay for the new software or they expect a level of unacceptable operational friction to occur during the transition from the old version to the new. Particularly in a large, complex environment the cross-platform dependencies can be difficult to understand and predict. Again, it is a risk assessment. What is the risk of running the outdated software, particularly when it supports a critical business function? If the solution is perceived as unaffordable, how does the cost of a new solution compare to the cost of a breach? Directors should also ask where are we running EOL software and why.

Patching. Software companies regularly release updates to their software called patches. The patches address performance issues, fix software bugs, add functionality, and eliminate security vulnerabilities. At any one time, even a mid-sized company could have a backlog of hundreds of patches that have not been applied. This backlog develops for a variety of reasons, but the most central issue is that information technology staff are concerned that applying the patch may “break” some process or software integration and impact the business. This is a valid concern.

In the case of WannaCry, Microsoft issued a patch in March  that would eliminate the vulnerability that allowed the malware to spread. Two months later, hundreds of thousands of machines remained unpatched and were successfully compromised.

Directors should ask for a high-level description of the risk management framework applied to the patching process. Do we treat critical patches differently than we treat lower-grade patches? Have we identified the software that supports critical business processes and apply a different time standard to apply patches there? If a patch will close a critical security vulnerability, but may also disrupt a strategic business function, are the leaders at the appropriate level of the business planning to manage disruption while also securing the enterprise? Have we invested in solutions that expedite the patching process so that we can patch as efficiently as possible?

Disaster Recovery. It is considered a disaster when your company ceases to execute core business functions because of a cyberattack. In the case of WannaCry, many businesses, including essential medical facilities in the United Kingdom, could not function. WannaCry was a potent example of how a cyberattack, which is an abstract concept for many business leaders, can have devastating impact in the physical world.

One aspect of disaster recovery is how quickly a company can recover data that has been encrypted or destroyed. Directors should have a strategic view of the data backup and recovery process. Have we identified the critical data that must be backed up? Have we determined the period of time the backup needs to cover and how quickly we need to be able to switch to the backup? Have we tested ourselves to prove that we could successfully pivot to the backup? What business impact is likely to occur?

The hospitals impacted by WannaCry present another angle of the disaster recovery scenario. For these hospitals, the disaster wasn’t limited to the loss of data. Most medical devices in use today interface with a computer for command and control of that device. During this attack, those command and control computers were rendered inoperative when the ransomware encrypted the software that allows the control computer to issue commands to the connected device. In many cases there is no way to revert to “manual” control. This scenario is particularly troubling given the potential to cause bodily harm.

It is easy to see a similar attack in a manufacturing plant where a control unit could be disabled bringing an assembly line to a halt. And it is not hard to imagine a threat to life and limb in a scenario where we rely on computer control to maintain temperatures and pressures at a safe level in a nuclear power plant.

Directors should ask about the process to recover control of critical assets. Can we activate backup systems that were not connected to the network at the time of the attack? If we bring the backup system on line, how do we know it will not be infected by the same malware? Have the appropriate departments practiced recovery process scenarios? What was the level of business disruption? Does everyone in the company know his or her role in getting critical operations back up and running?

Directors provide oversight of the risk management process—they do note execute the process. Understanding how the company is managing risk around EOL software, patching, and disaster recovery sets the right tone at the top and ensures that the company is better prepared for the inevitable next round of attacks.


Major General (Retired) Brett Williams is a co-founder of IronNet Cybersecurity and the former Director of Operations at U.S. Cyber Command. He is an NACD Board Governance Fellow and faculty member with NACD’s Board Advisory Services where he conducts in-depth cyber-risk oversight seminars for member boards. Brett is also a noted keynote speaker on a variety of cyber related topics.

Looking to strengthen your board’s cyber-risk oversight? Click here to review NACD’s Cyber-Risk Oversight Board Resource Center.

4 Comments

  • Sergio says:

    While I agree with EOL, recommendations, More than 95% of all of the infected machines were running Windows 7, according to Kaspersky Lab data. While I appreciate corporate patching testing and cycles, these systems were two months out of date. Appears wannacry was not well coded for xp though I am sure subsequent versions will do better.

  • Wayne Sadin says:

    Thanks for a great article! I have one minor quibble, and something to add:

    Quibble: What you refer to as EOL software is part of the bigger problem of “Technical Debt” caused by decades of underinvestment in ever-more-critical technology applications. As I told the Wall Street Journal (https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2017/05/16/wannacry-demonstrates-directors-need-better-understanding-of-technical-debt/), the fact that WannaCry infected so many systems is a–relatively benign–symptom of this very large problem.

    Add: In addition to asking about Technical Debt, patching (what Microsoft’s CISO called “security hygiene”), and Disaster Planning, WannaCry should spark a discussion about electing what Russell Reynolds called a QTE (Qualified Technology Expert) to the Board. This person could ask the technical questions–about cybersecurity, and about other technology risks and opportunities–that could help the Board oversee the firm’s technology.

    I wrote about these four questions on LinkedIn, and welcome comments: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/wannacry-ransomware-debacle-four-important-boards-wayne

  • David Castor says:

    Great article, I would add that boards should also consider proactive measures to prevent the need for maintaining EOL software. The end of support is usually advertised well in advance and can be expected even earlier. That is the time to begin looking at options to update or replace software that doesn’t work on the latest operating systems.

  • There is not enough knowledge and awareness at the Board level. Thank you for this effort!!

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