“It is the position of the U.S. government that we strongly discourage the payment of ransoms,” Eric Goldstein, a top cybersecurity official in the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional hearing last week.
But paying carries no penalties and refusing would be almost suicidal for many companies, especially the small and medium-sized. Too many are unprepared. The consequences could also be dire for the nation itself. Recent high-profile extortive attacks led to runs on East Coast gas stations and threatened meat supplies.
The dilemma has left public officials fumbling about how to respond. In an initial step, bipartisan legislation in the works would mandate immediate federal reporting of ransomware attacks to assist response, help identify the authors and even recoup ransoms, as the FBI did with most of the $4.4 million that Colonial Piple recently paid.
Without additional action soon, however, experts say ransoms will continue to skyrocket, financing better criminal intelligence-gathering and tools that only worsen the global crime wave.
President Joe Biden got no assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva last week that cybercriminals behind the attacks won’t continue to enjoy safe harbor in Russia. At minimum, Putin’s security services tolerate them. At worst, they are working together.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said this month that she is in favor of banning payments. ”But I don’t know whether Congress or the president is” in favor, she said.
And as Goldstein reminded lawmakers, paying doesn’t guarantee you’ll get your data back or that sensitive stolen files won’t end up for sale in darknet criminal forums. Even if the ransomware crooks keep their word, you’ll be financing their next round of attacks. And you may just get hit again.
In April, the then-top national security official in the Justice Department, John Demers, was lukewarm toward banning payments, saying it could put “us in a more adversarial posture vis-à-vis the victims, which is not where we want to be.”
Perhaps most vehement about a payment ban are those who know ransomware criminals best — cybersecurity threat responders.
Lior Div, CEO of Boston-based Cybereason, considers them digital-age terrorists. “It is terrorism in a different form, a very modern one.”
A 2015 British law prohibits U.K.-based insurance firms from reimbursing companies for the payment of terrorism ransoms, a model some believe should be applied universally to ransomware payments.