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Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing

Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing
© Greg Nash

Senators from both sides of the aisle sounded the alarm Wednesday on the dangers posed to small businesses and government entities by ransomware cyberattacks following a classified briefing from a key Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official.

The Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, led by Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Intel leadership urges American vigilance amid foreign election interference Intel officials say Iran, Russia seeking to influence election Senate Intel leaders warn of election systems threats MORE (D-Va.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Colo.), hosted the meeting with Christopher Krebs, the director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), who briefed members on threats posed by ransomware attacks.

Ransomware attacks have become an increasing threat nationwide over the past year, according to experts. The attacks involve an individual or group gaining access to a system, encrypting it and then demanding money before unlocking it for the owner.

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City governments including Baltimore and Atlanta have spent millions recovering their systems after ransomware attacks, while nearly two dozen small town governments in Texas were also the victims of a coordinated ransomware attack. States agencies in Louisiana have also been attacked as well as school districts in several states in separate debilitating attacks.

Following the briefing Wednesday, Warner said in a statement that “the continued prevalence of ransomware should really capture our attention.”

“Ransomware and its destructive cousin wiperware are designed to inflict fear and uncertainty, disrupt vital services, and sow distrust in public institutions,” Warner said.

Wiperware is a type of malware that infects a system and wipes the hard drive clean. It's not as big as ransomware, but experts have warned that it remains a threat.

“While often viewed as basic digital extortion, ransomware has had materially adverse impacts on markets, social services like education, water, and power, and on healthcare delivery, as we have seen in a number of states and municipalities across the United States,” Warner added.

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Gardner told The Hill on Tuesday prior to the briefing that he thought it was “important that the American people understand what’s at risk, so to have something that it is out in the open that we can get out is needed so the American people can be eyes open when it comes to the challenges that our country faces.”

Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanGOP coronavirus bill blocked as deal remains elusive Hollywood gives Biden's digital campaign final star-studded push Democrats step up hardball tactics as Supreme Court fight heats up MORE (D-N.H.), a member of the Cybersecurity Caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that the briefing was “a helpful conversation to aid us in grappling with the complexities of the threats we face and what we can do to address them.”

Hassan has pushed for action to protect small businesses and government entities from attack, sending a letter to the Government Accountability Office in October asking that it look into how the federal government is currently able to support state and local governments that are hit by ransomware attacks.

The Senate also took action as a whole in September when it passed by unanimous consent a bill sponsored by Hassan and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham wants to review ActBlue's source of small-dollar contributions GOP blocks Schumer effort to adjourn Senate until after election Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety MORE (R-Ohio) that would increase the ability of the federal government to assist groups hit by ransomware attacks.

Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Jaime Harrison raises million in two weeks for South Carolina Senate bid BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time MORE (D-Mich.), another member of the Cybersecurity Caucus and the top Democrat on the chamber's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told reporters that while he was not at the briefing on Wednesday, he would support holding a public hearing on ransomware threats.

“It definitely has to be addressed, and our small businesses in particular are being hit and impacted by this, and a large percentage of those who get hit by it often don’t survive it and end up going out of business, so we’ll definitely be focusing on it next year,” Peters said.

Cybersecurity Caucus member Sen. Angus KingAngus KingBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Ocasio-Cortez: Republicans don't believe Democrats 'have the stones to play hardball' Democrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation MORE (I-Maine) told reporters that he thought the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would be “a good place” for the hearing to be held but emphasized that he did not want to tell committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrat announces 2022 bid for Ron Johnson's seat Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day MORE (R-Wis.) “what hearings he should hold.”

“What we learned was (a) it’s a problem, (b) it’s widespread and increasing, and (c) companies and institutions, governments, state governments, local governments, there are things that they can do to protect themselves, but they have to take active measures to do so,” King said of the briefing.