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Lawmakers weigh responses to rash of ransomware attacks

Lawmakers weigh responses to rash of ransomware attacks
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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are mulling how to address the spate of ransomware attacks that have brought some state and local governments to their knees over the past few months.

The ransomware attacks, which involve an individual or group encrypting a computer system and demanding money to allow the user to regain access, have crippled districts, libraries and municipal governments.

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In the past week, attacks on the school district in Flagstaff, Ariz., forced the cancellation of classes for two days. And in Florida’s Wakulla County, an attack left school employees unable to securely send emails.

There have also been ransomware attacks on school districts in Oklahoma, Virginia and New York. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) declared a state of emergency after multiple school districts were hit with by ransomware attacks in July. 

Despite the widespread attacks and pending legislation, lawmakers have yet to coalesce around a unified strategy for countering the threats.

“It’s a top priority of the committee, and we’ll continue oversight, we’ll continue looking at the issue. I can’t tell you anything specific we are going to do, though,” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGrassley says he'll decide this fall whether to run in 2022 Top cops deflect blame over Capitol attack NRSC chair Scott calls for party unity: 'The Republican Civil War is now cancelled' MORE (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Gary PetersGary PetersDeJoy set for grilling by House Oversight panel Top cops deflect blame over Capitol attack Law enforcement officials lay out evidence Capitol riot was 'coordinated' attack MORE (Mich.), the top Democrat on the committee, told The Hill on Wednesday that ransomware poses an “epidemic problem."

“Chairman Johnson and I have been talking about cybersecurity issues pretty regularly, it’s something that may indeed come up in the future,” Peters said, referring to action on ransomware.

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Peters previously introduced legislation that would bolster coordination between the Department of Homeland Security and state and local governments on cybersecurity threats like ransomware.

That bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMurkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Trump backs former campaign adviser for Ohio Republican Party chair MORE (R-Ohio), was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in June but has yet to receive a floor vote.

Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoSix ways to visualize a divided America House GOP warns Biden against lifting sanctions on Iran House Republican calls on Biden to boycott Beijing Olympics MORE (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity subcommittee, introduced similar legislation last month.

His measure would require the Department of Homeland Security to create a guide for assisting state and local governments in preparing for, defending against and recovering from a cyberattack. Katko cited recent ransomware attacks on the City of Syracuse School District and the Onondaga County Public Library System as examples of why Congress needs to take action.

The lack of urgency on Capitol Hill stems in part from competing legislative priorities. Democrats have made election security legislation one of their key priorities for the fall, and both parties are now turning much of their attention to passing spending bills to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Advocates are hopeful that lawmakers, in weighing their legislative responses to ransomware, will draw upon some of the suggestions put forth by officials on the front lines.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said during testimony before the House Homeland Security cybersecurity subcommittee over the summer that the federal government should provide “cybersecurity disaster relief funding" to help state and local governments address ransomware attacks.

“We are living in a different digital world now,” Bottoms said. “Nation-state actors and other foreign adversaries are attacking our state and local governments and we need a strong federal partner to defend against those threats.”

Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric RichmondBottom line Biden pledges action on guns amid resistance Congressional Black Caucus to push aggressive agenda MORE (D-La.), chairman of the cybersecurity subcommittee, told The Hill he is exploring “some sort of follow-up” to that hearing, and noted that the panel might speak with Bottoms on next steps to address ransomware attacks.

“Maybe we’ll establish best practices or something like that, but it’s something that we’re going to have to deal with, as well as election security, as we get ready for elections,” Richmond said.

Rep. Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinLawmakers to roll out legislation reorganizing State cyber office Hassan to chair Senate emerging threats subcommittee The Hill's Morning Report - With trial over, Biden renews push for COVID-19 bill MORE (D-R.I.), a member of the cybersecurity subcommittee, said he is “angry and frustrated” by the attacks and intends to bring up the issue with Richmond.

Ransomware attacks also came up during a Senate Homeland Security hearing this week, when Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanBiden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Koch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - COVID-19 rescue bill a unity test for Dems MORE (D-N.H.) asked three former Homeland Security secretaries what Congress can do.

Michael Chertoff, who served under former President George W. Bush, and Jeh Johnson, who served during the Obama administration, both highlighted the need to educate state and local government employees on how to identify potential cyber threats.

“One thing that we could be doing would be to help localities do some basic things to secure their infrastructure, including things like for example having backups for data, it’s not going to eliminate the problem, but it’s going to reduce the issue,” Chertoff said.

Johnson pointed to the need to make sure that those with access to key systems know how to prevent threats.

“You’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t know how to respond to a suspicious email, and a lot of these attacks begin with an act of spear-phishing, somebody opened an email or an attachment they shouldn’t have opened, so simply raising the awareness among people we entrust with the system goes a long way,” Johnson said.