US hosts global meeting to fight ransomware, without the world's number one culprit

WASHINGTON – When the White House summoned 30 countries this week to formulate strategies to combat ransomware, one country was intentio...


WASHINGTON – When the White House summoned 30 countries this week to formulate strategies to combat ransomware, one country was intentionally left out: Russia, the biggest source of the problem.

It’s not that President Biden is excluding the country from the discussion. Since Mr. Biden’s summit with President Vladimir V. Putin in Geneva in June, White House officials tested Moscow’s willingness to crack down on the ransomware gangs that wreaked havoc in the United States last spring, closure of a critical gasoline and jet fuel pipeline and crippling a major meat producer. In recent weeks, US officials have said they have started passing intelligence on to Russians about specific hackers that the United States says are causing threats to businesses, cities and infrastructure. Officials say the Russians have appeared cooperative, but have yet to make any arrests.

There is evidence that the pressure exerted by Mr Biden in Geneva has made modest progress: spectacular attacks on critical infrastructure have waned, although there is a constant rate of requests for ransomware. Yet when asked how often he thought the United States would face such attacks in five years, General Paul M. Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency and commander of the United States Cyber ​​Command , said: “Every day. “

The purpose of the meeting, said Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, was to try to change that future by engaging allies to join the United States in what he called “an integrated effort to disrupt the ‘ransomware ecosystem’. So, for two days, in groups led by Australia, Britain, Germany and India, government experts sought to agree on how they could prevent the groups from using anonymous cryptocurrencies, which facilitate ransom payments, or harden the infrastructure to make it less likely that a ransomware attack would freeze critical operations, as was done in May with Colonial Pipeline, a fuel distributor in the North-east.

The conference was convened by Anne Neuberger, a longtime National Security Agency official, who is now Sullivan’s assistant for cyber and emerging technologies. Ms Neuberger also led the low-key exchange with Russia, which officials won’t discuss in detail. She described the meeting as an “anti-ransomware initiative” that would focus on “cryptocurrency, resilience, disruption and diplomacy.”

A foreign diplomat who attended the two-day closed-door meeting said it reminded him of “the early days of the fight against terrorism,” when the White House tried to engage key players to join the effort to deprive terrorist groups of the space to operate. “But in this case, we left the Pakistanis in the room and treated them as if they were part of the solution,” he said. “No one was prepared to do this with Russia.”

White House officials said there was little debate on whether to exclude Russia, although they publicly said Moscow could be invited to future sessions. The administration decided that it was better, for the first session, to try to demonstrate in Moscow that the tolerance of ransomware groups operating on Russian territory – some of which are suspected of occasionally tendering agencies of Russian intelligence – would poison any real discussion of joint initiatives, and that Moscow would do everything possible to sabotage any modest measures on which the 30 countries could agree.

Yet even the Biden administration has discovered limits to the strength with which it can push for major changes. Although he has imposed cybersecurity standards on government contractors and created a series of “sprints” for government agencies to harden their systems, his efforts to crack down on the use of cyber currencies encountered some objections among major investors and users of these currencies.

While Ms Neuberger has advocated for ‘know your customer’ rules similar to those governing banks to combat money laundering, major cryptocurrency investors have opposed transaction disclosure requirements, claiming that anonymity is crucial for the growing market.

Some of the country’s biggest companies are fighting legislation in Congress it would force them to report when attacked – a corporate embarrassment that could drive investors or customers away. Companies frequently try to hide the amount of ransom they pay, as Colonial Pipeline did this year. (Some of the millions he paid were recovered later.)

“Most violations go unreported to law enforcement,” Lisa O. Monaco, the deputy attorney general, who has worked extensively on cybersecurity issues as the former president’s internal security adviser Barack Obama, wrote recently. “The current gap in reporting hampers the government’s ability to tackle not only the threat of ransomware, but all cybercrime activity as well. “

The final communiqué avoided mentioning the mandatory declaration. He called for “enhanced cooperation to inhibit, trace and indict ransomware payment flows, in accordance with national laws and regulations,” with the final sentence acknowledging that many countries – not just tax havens – would resist efforts to facilitate user identification. cryptocurrencies.

Mr. Sullivan acknowledged the differences at the opening of the virtual meeting, the only part that took place in public. “Our governments may have different approaches when it comes to what tools we think are the best to counter ransomware,” he said, “everything from how to secure our networks, to taking advantage of diplomatic tools and even the most effective means of combating illicit financing “. But he insisted they were united in a bid to stop attacks that can lock down a company’s data or prevent nations from distributing water or keeping bridges open.

“This is not a meeting in the United States,” Sullivan insisted, noting how widespread ransomware attacks have disrupted critical infrastructure around the world. a attack on a water distribution system in Israel, for example, rocked the leaders of the American public services, and one on one petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia revealed the vulnerability of its oil production.

But at the meeting, the United States noted several of its latest measures, including using a Civil War-era law – the False Claims Act – to allow whistleblowers to reveal when government contractors did not meet basic cybersecurity standards. (The law was enacted in March 1863 to clamp down on businesses selling defective weapons and supplies to the Union Army.)

“For too long, companies have chosen silence in the mistaken belief that it is less risky to hide a violation than to highlight it and report it,” Monaco said last week. “Well that’s changing today.”

But no similar international initiative had been announced at the end of the conference. Ms. Neuberger said the meeting was “a start” and the key was for the United States to build a loose alliance of like-minded nations to tackle ransomware attacks. “This will not be the last meeting,” she said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: US hosts global meeting to fight ransomware, without the world's number one culprit
US hosts global meeting to fight ransomware, without the world's number one culprit
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