How cybercriminals are hacking into the heart of the US economy

Ransomware attacks have become a global epidemic, with more than $18.6bn paid in ransoms in 2020

Fears the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline because of a cyberattack would cause a gasoline shortage led to some panic buying
The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline because of a cyberattack led to some panic buying petrol
(Image credit: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)

For years, experts have warned that state-sponsored hackers could launch a cyberwar against the US, shutting down swathes of its infrastructure, said Andy Greenberg on Wired. But we now know that hackers can, and will, do it just for the money. A Russia-based cybercrime group known as DarkSide has claimed responsibility for the recent attack on the computer systems of Colonial Pipeline, which supplies nearly half the fuel consumed on the East Coast. The attack obliged Colonial to shut down parts of its operation, causing fuel shortages that in turn led to panic buying. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia declared states of emergency; 12,000 petrol stations ran dry. It was “one of the largest disruptions of American critical infrastructure by hackers in history”.

Ransomware attacks – in which hackers lock up computer networks and/or threaten to leak stolen data – have become a global epidemic, said A.J. Vicens in Mother Jones. The cybersecurity group Emsisoft estimates that more than $18.6bn was paid in ransoms in 2020, and that at least 2,354 US-based government, healthcare and education institutions faced some level of ransomware attack last year. The real number is no doubt higher, as some companies prefer not to reveal they’ve been targeted. Among the recent victims are several US police departments, who have had large quantities of classified data – including surveillance videos, crime-scene photos, names of informants – stolen and, in some cases, published online.

Russian gangs dominate this new criminal trade, but they aren’t the only ones involved in it, said Ed Caesar in The New Yorker. One state that barely bothers to conceal its cybercrime ambitions is North Korea. In a country where “few families own computers”, the Pyongyang regime has trained cybercriminal talent “the way Olympians were once cultivated in the former Soviet bloc”, placing the most promising pupils in specialised schools. It’s estimated that 7,000 North Koreans now work in the country’s “hacker army”.

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America must bolster its defences against this threat, said Timothy L. O’Brien on Bloomberg. The vulnerability of its energy infrastructure, in particular, is “one of the top-drawer issues of the 21st century”. Companies and the government have to start insulating their networks. Part of that is “being transparent” after attacks, rather than holding on to information out of embarrassment or competitiveness. That only makes it “harder to prepare for and surmount the next one”. Designating ransomware a national security threat would also help, said The Washington Post. It would free up intelligence resources and make it easier for authorities to impose harsher punishments, such as asset forfeiture and sanctions. We can’t afford to pull our punches in this fight.

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