US calls for global effort to combat cyberattacks

October 20, 2021 08:35 AM

A top US Treasury official on Tuesday called for a "global effort" to combat cyberattacks and to prevent criminals from holding computer systems for ransom.

"It's going to be critical that we not only do this in the United States, but that we have a global effort because many of these cyber criminals are domiciled outside of our country," Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said.

Governments, companies and individuals must focus on cybersecurity "to prevent criminal actors from being able to get into their system, and potentially use them to ransom."

He testified before the Senate Banking Committee to present a Treasury report showing that growing use of cryptocurrencies outside of traditional payments systems undermines the effectiveness of US economic sanctions.

"Our goal ultimately, is to make sure that payments do not flow into the hands of criminal actors and ... don't flow into the hands of those people who have been sanctioned by the United States," Adeyemo said.

Treasury sanctions work by blocking targets -- individuals, government officials or companies -- from using the US financial system, which in effect cuts them off from banking or profiting from trade in most of the world.

But the Treasury review said digital currencies and alternative payment platforms provide a way to skirt sanctions by moving funds and hiding profits outside the traditional dollar-based financial system.

The official said "it is true" that China is "trying to find means around our financial system to avoid sanctions."

But "by taking actions in unison with other countries" governments are better able to "hold our adversaries accountable for actions that they take that are in violation of international laws and norms," he said.

Asked about Afghanistan, Adeyemo said it is "essential" to maintain economic sanctions against the Taliban but also to "find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people."

"I see under no situation in which we would allow the Taliban to have access to the reserves that belong to the Afghan people," he said, referring to Washington's decision to withhold about $9 billion of the nation's reserves held overseas. 

The Treasury report showed use of sanctions increased tenfold over the past two decades since the attacks of September 11, 2001, with 9,421 designations this year compared to just 912 in 2000.

$590m in ransomware payments
New data out Friday last showed $590 million in ransomware-related payments were reported to US authorities in the first half of 2021 alone, setting a pace to beat totals for the whole previous decade as cyber-extortion booms.

The figure is also 42 percent higher than the amount divulged by financial institutions for all of 2020, the US Treasury report said, and there are strong indicators the true cost could be in the billions.

"If current trends continue, (reports) filed in 2021 are projected to have a higher ransomware-related transaction value than... filed in the previous 10 years combined," said Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The heists involve breaking into a company or institution's network to encrypt its data, then demanding a ransom, typically paid via cryptocurrency in exchange for the digital key to unlock it.

Washington has sought to crack down on a sharp rise in attacks, including issuing its first sanctions against an online exchange where illicit operators have allegedly swapped cryptocurrency for cash.

Recent assaults on a major US oil pipeline, a meatpacking company and the Microsoft Exchange email system drew attention to the vulnerability of US infrastructure to digital pirates who are extorting staggering sums.

Treasury said investigators found over 150 online wallets for cyptocurrency and by analyzing them uncovered roughly $5.2 billion in transactions potentially tied to ransomware payments.

Companies and institutions face intense pressure to pay up in order to get their data unlocked, but also to keep the attack from potentially angry clients and authorities who issue stern warnings not to give cash to criminals.

- Threat to critical infrastructure -
The report, based on the suspicious activity alerts that financial firms have to file, noted it was unclear if the jump represented increased awareness of the cybercrime.

"This trend potentially reflects the increasing overall prevalence of ransomware-related incidents as well as improved detection and reporting," Treasury said.

The victims of the attacks were not identified in the report, which noted some of the apparent ransoms were paid before January 2021.

The new data on the scale of payments related to hacks came after more than two dozen nations resolved to collectively fight ransomware during a Washington-led summit.

The United States gathered the countries -- with the notable exception of Russia -- to unify and boost efforts to fight a cybercrime that is transnational, on the rise and potentially devastating.

Stronger digital security and offline backups as well as collectively targeting the laundering of the attacks' proceeds were identified as crucial steps in the fight.

"We will consider all national tools available in taking action against those responsible for ransomware operations threatening critical infrastructure and public safety," the nations said in a joint statement.

Great Britain, Australia, India, Japan, France, Germany, South Korea, the European Union, Israel, Kenya, Mexico, and others were among those that joined in the virtual gathering on Wednesday and Thursday.

During the summit, nations recounted their agonizing experiences with cyber-extortion, including a digital "disaster" declaration in Germany and Israel even announcing a blitz was underway against a major hospital.

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