Cybersecurity

Senators question DHS, DOJ about ransomware

Johnson and Carper split image

Sens. Tom Carper (left) and Ron Johnson are asking DHS and Justice officials to explain what they are doing to combat ransomware.

Citing a rise in ransomware attacks that hold computer users' data hostage, two prominent senators sent letters to the heads of the departments of Justice and Homeland Security on Dec. 3 asking how the agencies are combatting the attacks.

"While much attention is paid to what must be done to bolster the cyber defenses at federal agencies and large businesses, all of us [are] vulnerable to online scams and emerging dangers like the malicious computer virus known as 'ransomware,'" said Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a statement.

Ransomware encrypts a computer user's information, and hackers then demand payment -- usually in the form of a difficult-to-trace crypto-currency -- to unlock the information.

The senators want to know how many ransomware variants Justice and DHS are tracking and how closely they are working together to do so.

Among the senators' questions to Attorney General Loretta Lynch is whether the FBI is working with the Federal Trade Commission to educate the public about ransomware. The senators also want to know if Justice uses tools such as signature-based detection and packet inspection on networks outside the department.

The senators asked DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to explain how Einstein, the intrusion-blocking system managed by his department that is being adopted across civilian agencies, has cut down on ransomware at federal agencies.

The economics of ransomware seem to favor the attacker. To boost profits, operators of ransomware are hiring and funding their own development teams to fashion new variants of malware, according to Cisco's latest Midyear Security Report. Almost all ransomware is multi-vector, meaning multiple pieces of malware may be involved in the attack, the report states. Cleaning up the malware can therefore be difficult.

Federal officials have taken notice. In June 2014, Justice announced that it had disrupted a form of ransomware known as CryptoLocker, which by one estimate had extracted $27 million from victims in its first two months of existence. Yet within a month of that takedown, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center identified an imitation ransomware known as CryptoWall, according to the senators' letter. From April 2014 to June 2015, CryptoWall squeezed victims for $18 million in ransom, according to the FBI.

Law enforcement officials have been stepping up their efforts to find the purveyors of malware, said Dmitri Alperovitch, CTO of CrowdStrike. The endpoint protection firm helped authorities shut down the botnet that was distributing CryptoLocker.

Although the "prevalence of ransomware still pales in comparison" to other forms of malware, such as browser hijackers, Alperovitch told FCW that ransomware is nonetheless a significant and noticeable threat to users. He said ransomware is the second most common concern voiced by CrowdStrike's potential customers, after targeted attacks.

"We would welcome more partnerships between law enforcement and security industry in taking a proactive approach to shut down these operations and bring responsible parties to court," Alperovitch said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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