The attacks, which led the FBI director to compare it to 9/11, target the country’s vulnerable infrastructure, which is returning to life after the pandemic shuts down, and put civilians on the front lines of an invisible conflict that is likely to unfold Resisting quick fixes will lessen the threat.
You leave President Joe Biden, who took office amid multiple crises, with delicate dilemmas on how to respond without escalating a full international cyberwar and exposing it to new political vulnerability. Many of the attacks appear to be the work of criminal gangs on Russian soil, putting pressure on the already tense President’s summit next week with President Vladimir Putin on his first trip abroad.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm warned Sunday that “very malicious actors” targeted the US following attacks on a pipeline, government agencies, a Florida water system, schools, health facilities and even last week the meat industry and a ferry service to the millionaires’ playground Martha’s Vineyard.
“Even as we speak, there are thousands of attacks on all aspects of the energy sector and the private sector in general … it happens all the time,” Granholm Jake Tapper told CNN’s State of the Union.
Worryingly, the former Michigan governor said foreign hackers had the ability to shut down US electricity and advised companies not to pay hackers’ ransom money.
A price to be paid price
Maine Senator Angus King, an independent Democratic group leader, warned that the US will now reap the consequences if it does not respond boldly enough to past attacks by China, Russia and North Korea.
“We were on a cheap date. And you can’t just defend yourself by teetering and weaving and patching. The opponent has to understand that he will pay his price, there will be a price to attack the United States or attack our critical infrastructure.” , “Said King, also on” State of the Union “.
The candid comments from the Senator and Secretary were followed by clearer warnings from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who put the threat into perspective in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week. He agreed that the challenges posed by ransomware hackers who implant computer codes that lock systems until victims pay are similar to those of September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda agents planned the worst terrorist attack in US history .
“There are many parallels,” Wray said, adding that the US government, the private sector and individual Americans need to recognize the threat. The Justice Department announced that it would coordinate its efforts to combat ransomware using the same protocols as it used to combat terrorism.
Like the 9/11 attackers, hackers exploited loopholes in US security systems and raised questions about the ability of US intelligence and government departments to work together effectively to thwart attacks.
Unlike after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001, the new threat reveals the broken political unity of the United States. Republicans were quick to tap into the aftermath of the latest hack in the Colonial Pipeline, which last month sparked gas shortages, panic buying, and long lines at gas pumps to suggest that Biden was weak and out of control. Former President Donald Trump, who is aiming for a political comeback, claimed on Saturday that cyberattacks had lost respect for US executives since leaving office.
Such political opportunism casts doubt on whether Biden would be able to unite Washington around if he were to counter a major attack by a hostile foreign power on US cyber defense.
Biden plans defense and then goes on the offensive
Given the scale of the attacks, the White House must rush to defend a vulnerable private sector while planning responses that, King suggests, can keep the culprits paying a painful price.
Biden has already signed an executive order calling on his government to make “bold changes” and “substantial investments” to protect the country’s digital infrastructure, which is designed to encourage similar precautionary measures by private companies. On Thursday, the National Security Council’s top cyber official Anne Neuberger wrote an open letter to corporate management sounding the alarm and warning the private sector that things had to get much better. And fast. “All organizations need to recognize that no company is safe from ransomware attacks, regardless of size or location,” wrote Neuberger.
Given the enormous cost of major cybersecurity changes and the fact that only one computer user can inadvertently open the gate for cyber attackers with malware, quickly ensuring comprehensive protection in an enterprise is a major challenge.
John Negroponte, the first director of the National Intelligence Service – a post created to defend against those caused by the 9/11 attacks. However, he argued that the government may need to force private companies to do more to expose cyberattacks, saying that a serious attack on a healthcare system, for example, could cost lives and have profound economic repercussions.
“I think there has been a reluctance because I think the private sector has resisted the need to work together in certain areas. And I think ultimately there will have to be legislation,” said Negroponte.
A showdown with Putin
The FBI has said the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline was likely orchestrated by the ransomware network known as DarkSide, which experts suspect is based in Russia. The White House said last week that an attack on JBS USA, one of the world’s largest food companies, was the work of a “criminal organization likely based in Russia”.
The new attacks put even more control over Biden’s summit in Geneva with Putin on June 16. The US and Russia are already divided by electoral interference, Moscow’s pressure on Ukraine, human rights and strategic issues. But the US president will now come under even more pressure to expose the law to a rival who has at various times managed to outsmart the last three US presidents. Biden gave a cursory “no” last week when asked if Putin was testing him. Putin, with the poker face of a former KGB officer, said last week the allegations against Moscow were nonsense, Reuters reported.
The fact that the attacks are being blamed on private companies gives Putin a semblance of denial. But given the nature of the Russian security state and the connection between organized crime and intelligence services, one can assume that Putin could stop the attacks if he wanted to. Indeed, the attacks seem to be in the interests of the Russian leader. The focus of his foreign policy over the past decade has been to weaken the United States in order to strengthen Russia’s relative power and prestige. The chaos and political allegations sparked by cyberattacks go hand in hand with the internal discord that US intelligence agencies have called – on behalf of Trump – Russia’s disinformation and propaganda warfare during the last two US election campaigns.
Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt said Sunday that Russians must start paying a price for tacitly accepting criminal ransomware attacks.
“You really need to treat Russia like it’s a criminal enterprise,” Blunt said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “You know, they harbor criminals, they don’t value the rule of law or any degree of personal freedom. And I think we have to push back.”
Retribution is a danger in itself
What kind of retaliation the US should take is a difficult one.
For starters, the cyber warfare battlefield is in the shadows, meaning there is little public evidence of any action the US may have already taken or the cathartic gratification of visible reprisals.
But all counter-attacks need to be calibrated to avoid escalation that could not only lead to a dangerous stalemate between the US and other nuclear powers, but could simply lead to further attacks on US soil.
In April, the government announced sanctions, including for Russia’s interference in the 2020 US elections and the attack on software developer SolarWinds – one of the worst data breaches ever to hit the US government.
But there is little evidence of an effective deterrent. Microsoft recently said that hackers who are part of the same Russian group behind the SolarWinds hack targeted more than 150 government agencies, think tanks, and other organizations in the US and elsewhere.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told CNN in an interview last month that the US was “able to conduct offensive operations” and defended itself – but refused to specify exactly what the US could do.
This is Biden’s problem as he grapples with another cascading crisis.