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The U.S. is taking decisive action against cybercrime

September 22, 2021, 11:07 AM UTC
The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline in May had serious repercussions on price and supply.
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The sight of anxious drivers forming long lines at gas stations, hoping to fuel up before supplies run out, is a sure signal of economic distress.

In the 1970s, a months-long oil embargo made gas lines an all-too-common feature of American life, while in 2012 shortages hit the Northeast following Hurricane Sandy. But those events were the result of a geopolitical standoff and a historic natural disaster. This past summer’s gas shortages were caused by a ransomware attack—an attack in which criminal hackers take a target’s data and network hostage until the victim makes a ransom payment—on Colonial Pipeline. Though the resulting lines at gas stations were short-lived, the ensuing price and supply issues were a stark reminder of the significant and growing risk that cyberattacks pose to our economy.

In 2020, the amount paid in ransomware cryptocurrency payments reached over $400 million, more than four times the level in 2019, and just a fraction of the economic harm caused by all cyberattacks. Cybercriminals and ransomware actors are increasingly exploiting technological innovations that offer secure, anonymous payments for nefarious and criminal purposes. Stopping them requires a novel and concerted strategy, one that combines the resources of the public and private sectors. This is the only way to protect our economy and national security from the risk created by cybercrime and ransomware attacks.

The U.S. government is already putting elements of this strategy into action. In May, President Biden signed an executive order that removes barriers to sharing information related to cyber incidents, enhances the federal government’s cybersecurity, and improves software supply-chain security. The federal government is actively engaging with our foreign counterparts on this issue. This includes addressing the global risks that cyberattacks pose through the G7 Cyber Expert Group and other international forums. It also means taking a firm stance with countries that turn a blind eye to malicious cyber activity. As the President said earlier this year, we will take “any necessary action” to defend our economy and infrastructure from these attacks.

That is why, yesterday, the Treasury Department announced new actions to combat cybercriminals that use ransomware to take companies hostage. First, we are imposing sanctions on Suex, a virtual currency exchange that has facilitated transactions involving illicit proceeds for at least eight ransomware variants. Exchanges like Suex are critical to criminals’ ability to extract profits from ransomware attacks. As a result of yesterday’s designation, Suex will be unable to conduct business with American companies and individuals or access the U.S. financial system that sits at the center of global economic exchange. This action is a signal of our intention to expose and disrupt the illicit infrastructure used in these attacks.

Second, the Treasury is updating our 2020 ransomware guidance to further support and protect ransomware victims that share information with law enforcement. This new guidance reflects our view that we can best protect our economy when government and industry collaborate and share all relevant information to deter and—where necessary—remediate cyberattacks.

We also know that when it comes to cybersecurity, our best offense is a good defense. In the United States, much of our critical infrastructure—like utility companies, pipelines, rail lines, and hospitals—are owned by private companies. These firms and others need to take decisive action to bolster their cyber defenses and prevent attacks from happening in the first place. This means meeting the highest standards for cybersecurity and holding third-party service providers, with access to their networks and data, to the same high standards.

Many in the private sector have demonstrated that they share this commitment. A recent Travelers Risk Index survey cited cyber risk as a top concern across companies of all sizes. These concerns are already driving action. During a meeting led by President Biden last month, several technology companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft committed to lead improvements in supply-chain security, invest in cybersecurity training, deliver advanced security solutions, and further integrate cybersecurity throughout their operations.

Finally, the potential for economic damage posed by cyberattacks must be understood as a risk to our financial system. Financial firms like banks and insurance providers need to integrate cyber risk into their decision-making. These firms must hold their clients, policyholders, and counterparties accountable for taking prudent steps to implement cybersecurity standards.

We do not expect the private sector to solve the problem of cyberattacks and ransomware on its own. Our economy works best when the public and private sectors work together to solve our greatest challenges. Through close collaboration, the sharing of critical information, and the development of cooperative solutions, we can safeguard our economy and promote secure economic growth.

Wally Adeyemo is deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

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