Recent attacks lead to renewed calls for banning ransom payments
Major ransomware attacks that have disrupted businesses and caused supply chain ripples in the US economy have led to renewed calls for making it illegal to pay a ransom to cybercriminals.
In June, a month after oil and gas transport network Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS USA paid massive ransoms of $4.4 million and $11 million, respectively, to recover from attacks, FBI Director Christopher Wray told public companies that they should not pay cybercriminals for the digital keys to decrypt their data. “In general, we would discourage paying the ransom because it encourages more of these attacks, and frankly, there is no guarantee whatsoever that you are going to get your data back,” Wray said during a US Senate Committee on Appropriations hearing on June 23.
Some security experts are urging the government to go further and, despite the difficulties in enforcing such a law, make it illegal to pay ransoms to ransomware groups. Mike Hamilton, founder and chief information security officer at Critical Insight, a cybersecurity service provider, says that recent events have hardened his opinion and increased his support for such an option.
“I think that without public policy to (a) create a financial backstop as a reinsurer and (b) prohibit extortion payments for ransomware, we will continue to have our behinds handed to us,” he says. “We have to create a situation where the gangs cannot monetize victims in the United States. They are a business, and we have to let them know that we’re no longer their ideal victim profile.”
The idea is not new. In 2019, following ransomware attacks on town administration and local services in Texas, the US Conference of Mayors — which represents the top elected officials of every US town of more than 30,000 citizens — pledged to not pay ransoms to cybercriminals. In early 2020, the US Treasury Department weighed in, underscoring that companies that pay ransomware to sanctioned groups or organizations are violating the law.
And some security firms have pointed out that companies that pay ransoms are funding the next round of attacks.
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