Since ransomware’s introduction in 1989 in the form of the AIDS Trojan, also known as PS Cyborg, distributed on diskettes, ransomware has continually increased and evolved into a heinous threat to our national security, public safety, and to our economic and public health. With ransoms paid in 2020 reaching more than $300+ million, it has become a disruptive economic leach on the resources of its victims. Local governments, educational organizations, hospitals, critical infrastructure services, businesses and organizations of all sizes have had to decide what to do when presented with a ransomware demand. These activities are highly disruptive, causing far more costs to the victims than just the cost of the ransom.
Ransomware is highly profitable. Today malicious actors are organized and coordinate their operations. We are seeing Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) businesses making it easy for those without the skills or infrastructure to threaten us as well. The scourge of ransomware must be addressed.
The Institute for Security and Technology (IST) stood up and initiated the Ransomware Task Force (RTF) late last year to address ransomware in a more wholistic fashion. In partnership with a broad coalition of 60+ experts from cybersecurity vendors, financial services, governments, law enforcement, non-profits, and international organizations, the RTF developed and released Combating Ransomware: A Comprehensive Framework for Action.
As you might expect, there were some very tough conversations during the development of the recommendations. For example, prohibiting / outlawing ransomware payments was one area of contention. There are valid reasons to want to prohibit payments. No one wants their corporate funds or governmental tax dollars going to pay for other forms of cybercrime or elicit nation state activities. Sadly, the state of cybersecurity maturity, in the U.S. alone, is not ready for such a step. Consensus was reached that we are really not ready to play that game of chicken.
Ransomware is a global problem and while many of the recommendations in the framework for action are directed at specific U.S. government bodies, it is important our international partners map the recommendations onto their specific governmental structures. Throughout the report it is clear the recommendations are global in nature and that coordinated, international diplomatic and law enforcement efforts are critical. There are 48 recommendations as a part of the report. Most of the recommendations are not technical but rather legal, economic, and diplomatic tools.
It is heartening to see the level of activity focused on addressing ransomware in the new administration. The Department of Justice is standing up a new task force dedicated to dealing with ransomware. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently formed a ransomware task force and launched a 60-day sprint. Participating in the RTF Launch event, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the IST RTF report will help guide a whole-of-government approach to the problem. He also stated the White House is developing a plan to combat ransomware.
While all these efforts are welcomed, my hope is that the great work of the IST RTF described in Combating Ransomware: A Comprehensive Framework for Action is used as a foundation to feed these and future efforts so we can see real progress in the actionable outcomes we all desire.
I’d like to thank IST CEO Philip Reiner and his outstanding team for allowing me to participate as a member of the RTF. To all my fellow RTF members, I hope to work with each of you again.