WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities are running into a major obstacle in holding hackers responsible for an onslaught of ransomware attacks: The extortionists remain out of reach in Russia, safely ensconced behind a cybercurtain as difficult to penetrate as the iron one that defined the Cold War.
Recent high-profile ransomware assaults have added urgency to U.S. government efforts to combat Russia-linked hackers who have disrupted East Coast U.S. fuel supplies, raised fears about nationwide meat shortages and exposed sensitive files from a Southern California police force. The problem, Justice Department officials say, is that the Kremlin believes it benefits from allowing such hackers to target U.S. interests, gathering valuable intelligence in the process.
“The criminal hacking the Russian government is willing to tolerate and take advantage of is beyond what we see in virtually every other country,” said John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security prosecutor who has battled ransomware since 2017. “It is very difficult to stop hacking when it is occurring in a country that is more than just tolerating it, but is quite happy with it.”
President Joe Biden is expected to discuss Russian ransomware attacks with allies during his European trip, hoping to find common ground in confronting the Kremlin. Advisers say he will also seek to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin during a June 16 meeting in Geneva to rein in hackers.
Biden issued an executive order last month that White House officials say will enhance cybersecurity of federal government networks and enhance security standards for commercial software.
The Justice Department is also seeking new ways to combat what a top agency official called an “epidemic” and Attorney General Merrick Garland told Congress was a “very, very serious threat” that is “getting worse and worse.” The FBI on Monday managed to recover $2.3 million in difficult-to-trace cryptocurrency that a pipeline company paid in ransom to Russia-linked hackers to unlock its systems, a move that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said showed the Justice Department will use “all available tools to make these attacks more costly and less profitable for criminal enterprises.”
Cybersecurity and foreign policy experts are less than sanguine the Biden administration efforts will put a real dent in ransomware assaults launched from Russia. Curtailing the attacks, they say, will require a worldwide pressure campaign that has yet to materialize because previous U.S. administrations and foreign governments didn’t take the threat seriously enough or feared intensifying tensions with Putin.
“The Russians have to be afraid of us,” said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Russian government, for its part, has denied it directs cybercriminals to attack U.S. interests, or protects them from U.S. prosecution. Putin told Russian state TV Channel One last week that accusing his government of involvement was ridiculous .
“It’s just nonsense, it’s funny,” Putin said. “It’s absurd to accuse Russia of this.”