US Government Prepares Strategy to Respond to Ransomware Attacks

June 4, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration and members of Congress are pledging a tough response to the mounting devastation of cyberattacks as the risk of a bigger confrontation with Russia grows.

On Wednesday, a White House spokesperson spelled out the U.S. government’s strategy.

She was responding to media questions about the ransomware attack this week against Brazilian meat production company JBS SA, which shut down its plants in the United States and Australia.

JBS, the world’s largest meat packer, resumed normal operations Wednesday but only after the hacking attack was traced to a criminal organization based in Russia.

The cyberattack follows the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that crippled fuel delivery last month to U.S. Southeastern states and temporarily raised gasoline prices. It also was traced to a Russian gang.

Other cyberattacks, such as the SolarWinds spyware last year against U.S. government agencies, were found to have Russian government backing.

President Joe Biden said this week that the cyberattacks will be one of the issues he discusses when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in two weeks.

At the White House press briefing Wednesday, spokesperson Jen Psaki described the initial strategy to counter the attacks as “four major lines of effort.” It includes:

  • Disrupting ransomware infrastructure and actors;
  • Building an international coalition to hold countries who harbor ransomware actors accountable;
  • Expanding cryptocurrency analysis to find and pursue criminal transactions;
  • Reviewing U.S. government ransomware policies.

“I will say that this attack is a reminder about the importance to private sector entities of hardening their cybersecurity and ensuring that they take the necessary steps to prepare for this threat, which we’ve seen rising even over the last few weeks,” Psaki said about the JBS attack.

Another response is planned in the U.S. Senate, which most likely will lead to new federal legislation.

The chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee announced this month she plans a hearing soon on how to prevent cyberattacks.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., announced the plans for Senate action in a letter this month to Homeland Security Department Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Her letter described “the urgent need to harden our nation’s critical infrastructure against computer errors, criminals and hostile foreign adversaries.” She did not announce a date for the hearing.

About 80.5% of American managerial and professional workers and 70.5% of personnel in technical, sales and administrative support occupations use computers, according to the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

At least one bill to protect critical computer networks already is pending in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., introduced a bill that would require the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to establish a National Cyber Exercise Program to test critical computer infrastructure readiness.

The bill also would require CISA to help local governments and private industry design plans to evaluate their critical infrastructure security.

“Even if the intent behind an attack is only to steal money or hold data for ransom, the broader consequences can be enormous for our national and economic security,” Slotkin said in a statement.

In addition, lawmakers on the House Homeland Security cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and innovation subcommittee said this month they are drafting a bill that would provide as much as $500 million in annual grants to states and local governments to improve cybersecurity

At a hearing of the subcommittee, computer experts testified that state and local governments are the weakest link in the national cybersecurity network.

Last year, about 2,400 state and local governments, hospitals and schools paid roughly $350 million in ransoms to regain access to their networks after hackers shut them out of their own computers, according to Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y.

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