The White House is treating the spate of major ransomware attacks this year as a threat to national security, with FBI Director Christopher Wray comparing the government's newfound urgency to its rush to combat international terrorism after 9/11. "There are a lot of parallels, there's a lot of importance, and a lot of focus by us on disruption and prevention," Wray told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. "There's a shared responsibility, not just across government agencies but across the private sector and even the average American."
Ransomware attacks, which typically use malicious software to seize and lock up a company's data until a ransom is paid, aren't carried out by governments but rather by criminal organizations; as a result, up to this point, such cases have primarily been treated as mostly criminal concerns. But while the FBI formerly approached ransomware attacks with the end-goal of prosecution — a rare outcome, however, because most of the hackers live in places like Russia, where they're sheltered from U.S. law — the new approach will involve "using intelligence agencies to spy on foreign criminals and contemplating offensive cyber operations against hackers inside Russia," officials told NBC News.
Earlier this year, a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline led to panic buying and gas shortages in the Southeast. Another attack resulted in thousands of confidential documents from the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department leaking onto the dark web. Then again this week, a ransomware attack targeted Brazil's JBS, the world's largest meat processor, causing plants to shut down and threatening worldwide meat shortages. The U.S. almost immediately blamed Russia for the JBS attack, which NBC adds is " extremely unusual," because the White House rarely will "publicly call out a foreign adversary over a single ransomware attack."
Americans are "now realizing [ransomware attackers] can affect them when they're buying gas at the pump or buying a hamburger — I think there's a growing awareness now of just how much we're all in this fight together," Wray said.