Lawmakers weigh responses to rash of ransomware attacks

Lawmakers weigh responses to rash of ransomware attacks
© iStock

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 JohnsonRemembering Tom Coburn's quiet persistence Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner GOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries MORE (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Group pushes Trump for creation of manufacturing chief GOP challenger outraises Michigan's Sen. Peters in first quarter 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 PortmanSenate 'unlikely' to return on April 20, top GOP senator says Phase-four virus relief hits a wall GOP senator to donate 2 months of salary in coronavirus fight 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 KatkoDemocrats struggle to keep up with Trump messaging on coronavirus To fight the rising tide of hate in our country, we must stop bias-based bullying in the classroom Hillicon Valley: House passes key surveillance bill | Paul, Lee urge Trump to kill FISA deal | White House seeks help from tech in coronavirus fight | Dem urges Pence to counter virus misinformation 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 Levon RichmondHillicon Valley: House passes key surveillance bill | Paul, Lee urge Trump to kill FISA deal | White House seeks help from tech in coronavirus fight | Dem urges Pence to counter virus misinformation Lawmakers criticize Trump's slashed budget for key federal cyber agency Government report offers guidelines to prevent nationwide cyber catastrophe 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. LangevinPeople with disabilities are the forgotten vulnerable community in the age of COVID-19 House Democrats eyeing much broader Phase 3 stimulus US Cyber Command leader says election security is agency's 'top priority' 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) HassanDemocrats urge administration to automatically issue coronavirus checks to more people Mnuchin says Social Security recipients will automatically get coronavirus checks Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors 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.