Some of the earliest attacks were in healthcare facilities, in part due to their reliance on hard-to-update IT infrastructure and vulnerable operating systems as well as the critical and even life-threatening impact of a network outage in a hospital. Over the years, ransomware attacks have shown up in TV episodes and received broad coverage in the media.
If this is the case, why is the federal government only now weighing in on addressing these attacks? Three factors come to mind:
- The impact on the US economy and literal flow of goods (gas and meat are just the latest) at this critical juncture, just as the US economy is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic
- The weaponization of ransomware attacks and the involvement of foreign governments in the disruption of the economy and the escalation of attacks
- A general erosion of confidence in the cybersecurity of IT infrastructure, on which so much of daily life now depends
The SolarWinds attack — while not a ransomware attack — demonstrated the fragility of our IT infrastructure and the interdependencies of our networks. Additionally, if you recall the ice storm that disrupted the electric grid and water supplies in Texas and Mississippi early this year, we clearly see the impact of outages to our critical infrastructure. Couple these observations with the recognition that adversarial nation-state governments are now harnessing software supply chain and ransomware attacks to methodically undermine confidence in and actual operations of the US economy, power, water, and financial systems.
When ransomware attacks were thought to be crimes of opportunity and cryptocurrencies were both the "getaway car" and the financial instrument of the benefit, common best practices were considered adequate defenses. Those best practices included addressing vulnerabilities, automating patching — especially of critical servers and applications, leveraging multifactor authentication and eliminating passwords, employing anti-phishing and anti-ransomware solutions on mobile devices and user endpoints, and implementing a zero-trust architecture framework.
The same best practices are useful in mitigating the more sophisticated ransomware attack landscape that we now find ourselves facing. However, the combination of the software supply chain attack vector and the ransomware attack vector complicate how we combat these attacks. The nation-state nexus changes the motivation from monetary reward to intelligence gathering and operational disruption. The typical ransomware attack is based on a near-term time horizon and ability to cash in on the attack, yet intelligence gathering and maximizing the disruptive potential (and, in parallel, camouflaging its presence) may be components of a nation-state attack.
At the federal level, we need to address the pervasive fear when cyberattacks are reported. This is not to discount the actual impact and disruption caused by the SolarWinds attack or the loss of millions of identities in the Office of Management and Budget data breach several years ago — but we need to balance the reports of data loss with clear descriptions of how the attacks were perpetrated, how they were discovered, and what is being done to remediate and prevent future events.
Recall the fear-induced stockpiling of toilet paper, meat, and gasoline where there was little if any actual shortage; disruptions were caused by the fear of the shortage rather than any actual shortage. This tendency carries over to insecurities in financial systems — potentially one of the underlying factors in the early successes of cryptocurrency — and in the supply distribution networks for everything from personal protective equipment to water and electricity. The federal government needs to assure its citizens that physical, technical, and supply distribution-channel infrastructures are all protected, resilient, and have well-constructed contingencies.
Yes, ransomware attacks have the potential to be the new pandemic — but they don't have to be. We can be more resilient and better prepared with adequate preparation and leadership.