FBI director draws ‘parallels’ between ransomware attacks and 9/11

FBI Director Christopher Wray
Greg Nash

FBI Director Christopher Wray is comparing the increasing ransomware hacks on critical U.S. companies to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

“There are a lot of parallels, there’s a lot of importance, and a lot of focus by us on disruption and prevention,” Wray told The Wall Street Journal in an article published Friday. “There’s a shared responsibility, not just across government agencies but across the private sector and even the average American.”

Wray told the Journal that his agency is investigating around 100 types of ransomware, pointing to Russia as the origin for many of the attacks.

“Time and time again, a huge portion of those traced back to actors in Russia,” he said. “And so, if the Russian government wants to show that it’s serious about this issue, there’s a lot of room for them to demonstrate some real progress that we’re not seeing right now.”

Wray’s comments came in the wake of multiple high-profile ransomware attacks, including one earlier this week on JBS USA, the largest supplier of beef in the nation, which forced all its U.S. facilities to shut down for a day.

Last month, a similar ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, the supplier of 45 percent of the East Coast’s fuel, led to gas shortages in multiple states, with the company choosing to pay the hackers the equivalent of $4.4 million in Bitcoin to receive keys to decrypt their systems.

The FBI assessed that both JBS and Colonial were hit by Russian-linked hacking groups, and the White House confirmed this week that the escalating cyberattacks are a key issue that President Biden plans to bring up with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit later this month. 

Wray pointed to the escalating attacks — which have also targeted a major ferry service, media group, hospitals, and health care systems in recent weeks — as underlining a growing national security threat.

“The scale of this problem is one that I think the country has to come to terms with,” he told the Journal. 

Wray’s comments also came the day after Reuters reported that the Justice Department will elevate ransomware attack investigations to the priority level of terrorist attacks. This came a month after the Justice Department established a ransomware task force to further investigate the increase in attacks. 

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told CNBC in an exclusive interview on Friday that the agency’s focus on ransomware was “reflective” of the threat these attacks pose “to national security and to economic security.”

When asked if she agreed with Wray’s comparison of the attacks to those that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, Monaco said that she “absolutely” sees the need to take ransomware seriously.

“I absolutely agree that we need to treat ransomware and cyberattacks like the national security threat that they are,” Monaco told CNBC. “That’s why we are taking the steps that we are across the department, indeed across the government. We need to have a national picture, and we need to bring all of our tools to bear.”

The Justice Department and FBI are not the only agencies to take action, with the Biden administration as a whole zeroing in on ransomware. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday outlined a review currently underway involving building an international coalition to confront ransomware, expanding cryptocurrency analysis, disrupting ransomware infrastructure and reviewing current policies. 

“We know that the ransomware threat is urgent, it’s complex and it’s been increasing over the last several years, and you know it feels new to us over the last few weeks, but it has been increasing rapidly all over the world over the last several years,” Psaki told reporters at the White House.

“That review is ongoing internally with our national security team, and we’ll assess what additional needs might be needed,” she added.

Tags 9/11 Christopher Wray Colonial Pipeline cyberattacks FBI JBS USA Jen Psaki Joe Biden Justice Department Lisa Monaco Ransomware Ransomware attack Russia Vladimir Putin
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