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 WarnerDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Advocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democrats draw red lines in spending fight MORE (D-Va.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program 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) HassanOvernight Hillicon Valley — Majority supports national data privacy standards, poll finds Senator calls on agencies to take action to prevent criminal cryptocurrency use Trump praises NH Senate candidate as Sununu weighs own bid 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 PortmanOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Afghan evacuation still frustrates DHS chief 'horrified' by images at border DHS secretary condemns treatment of Haitian migrants but says US will ramp up deportations MORE (R-Ohio) that would increase the ability of the federal government to assist groups hit by ransomware attacks.

Sen. Gary PetersGary PetersDHS chief 'horrified' by images at border FBI withheld decryption key for Kaseya ransomware attack for three weeks: report Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Democrats press FTC to resolve data privacy 'crisis' 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 KingRep. Tim Ryan becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress Senate backers of new voting rights bill push for swift passage Stacey Abrams backs Senate Democrats' voting rights compromise 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 JohnsonLiberal group launches campaign urging Republicans to support Biden's agenda Domestic extremists return to the Capitol GOP senator: Buying Treasury bonds 'foolish' amid standoff over debt ceiling, taxes 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.