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Ex-CIA chief Panetta: Russian hackers behind cyberattacks are 'terrorists'

Former CIA chief Leon Panetta said that Russian hackers behind recent crippling cyberattacks are “terrorists” as the Biden administration ramps up efforts to curtail the intrusions.

“From my point of view, they’re terrorists. When they come at us with ransomware, even though they’re a criminal operation, they’re operating out of Russia, and they are going after some very important infrastructure in this country," Panetta, who is also a former defense secretary, said on MSNBC Friday. "And yeah, they’re doing it for money. But it is weakening the United States every time this infrastructure gets impacted."

The remark comes after devastating cyberattacks from a criminal group of hackers based in Russia.

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Colonial Pipeline, which supplies around 45 percent of the East Coast's fuel, temporarily shut down its operations last month after a ransomware attack carried out by a Russia-based criminal group targeted some of its data. JBS USA, the nation’s largest beef supplier, was hit by a similar ransomware attack this week that is believed to have also originated from Russia.

Ransomware attacks overall have increased during the coronavirus pandemic as hackers target vulnerable and critical organizations they believe are more likely to pay up to regain access to their networks and data.

In response to the intrusions, the Justice Department this week said it will give investigations into ransomware attacks the same priority as those into terrorist attacks.

“It's a specialized process to ensure we track all ransomware cases regardless of where it may be referred in this country, so you can make the connections between actors and work your way up to disrupt the whole chain,” John Carlin, the acting deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, said this week.