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.
With almost 45 NHS organisations from London to Scotland hit in the ransomware attack on Friday, patients of the state-funded countrywide service are facing days of chaos as appointments and surgeries have been cancelled.
There have been reports of infections in 99 countries, including the UK, US, China, Russia, Spain, Italy and Taiwan.
Ransomware is malicious software that infects machines, locks them by encrypting data and then attempts to extort money to let users back in.
US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (USCRT) under the Department of Homeland Security said it has received multiple reports of WannaCry ransomware infections in many countries around the world.
Global cyber-attack: How roots can be traced to the US
Attacks were also detected in Spain, the Philippines, and Kazakhstan, Turkey, Vietnam, Germany, Indonesia, and Japan. The unprecedented attack plunged the health service into chaos, forcing hospitals to cancel and delay treatment.
Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at the Helsinki-based cybersecurity company F-Secure, called the attack "the biggest ransomware outbreak in history".
Spain's government said on Friday a large number of companies, including telecommunications giant Telefonica, had been attacked by cyber criminals who infected computers with ransomware.
Its ransom demands start at 300 dollars and increase after two hours to 400, 500 and then 600 dollars, said Kurt Baumgartner, a security researcher at Kaspersky Lab. Affected users can restore their files from backups, if they have them, or pay the ransom; otherwise they risk losing their data entirely.
Britain's National Cyber Security Centre, part of the GCHQ spy agency, said it was aware of a cyber incident and was working with NHS and the police to investigate.
He said: "This is an unprecedented scale". Microsoft released a patch (a software update that fixes the problem) for the flaw in March, but computers that have not installed the security update remain vulnerable.
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Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu cited 45,000 attacks in 74 countries, saying that the malware, a self-replicating "worm", was spreading quickly.
A top Russian mobile operator says it has come under cyberattacks that appeared similar to those that have crippled some United Kingdom hospitals.
Hospitals across Britain found themselves without access to their computers or phone systems. The attack froze computers at hospitals across the country, with some cancelling all routine procedures. Tom Griffiths, who was at the hospital for chemotherapy, said several cancer patients had to be sent home because their records or bloodwork couldn't be accessed. Portugal Telecom and Telefonica Argentina both said they were also targeted. "It's stressful enough for someone going through recovery or treatment for cancer".
Tom Donnelly, a spokesperson for the country's National Health Service (NHS), said the assault and its effects are still ongoing, according to The New York Times.
Also, the hack happened four weeks before a British parliamentary election in which national security and the management of the state-run National Health Service (NHS) are important campaign themes.
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