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Can you hear me now?

10 May 2021 By Richard Beales

Ransomware just got real for Colonial Pipeline. A cyberattack forced the shutdown of its pipeline network, one of America’s biggest fuel-transport operations. The hack is the loudest warning yet about critical vulnerabilities. Keeping up with the threat will take more money and a sharper focus.

If Colonial’s system is not fully up-and-running again soon, the incident could threaten gasoline and other supplies around America’s East Coast. But it isn’t alone. Ransomware attacks, in which hackers freeze a target’s computer systems, steal data and threaten to destroy or publicize it if they aren’t paid, have proliferated in recent years, paralyzing hospitals, schools, businesses, and more.

Ransomware is only one manifestation of cyber crime, a business that is sharply on the rise according to a new eCrime Index compiled by CrowdStrike. But it’s one that has grown potentially more dangerous, with hackers increasingly “big game hunting” to maximize their revenue, according to the cybersecurity services provider.

Punishing the criminals can be nearly impossible. Russian, Iranian or Chinese state-sponsored hackers usually can’t be touched because they are shielded by governments. Other criminals may align themselves with places where enforcement is lax. For example, the DarkSide group suspected in the Colonial attack, according to Reuters sources, seems to spare businesses based in former Soviet bloc countries.

That leaves companies and governments to defend themselves. The continuing U.S. national-security threat, often illustrated by concerns about America’s electricity grid, has prompted successive groups to attempt a coordinated response. Just three weeks ago, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden promised a 100-day push to strengthen electricity operations against cyber threats.

Yet such initiatives date back at least to President Bill Clinton’s time. And a lack of coordination remains a problem. Last month, the Institute for Security and Technology unveiled recommendations to counter ransomware by a more than 60-strong task force. The top priorities are cooperation, both international and between the disparate U.S. authorities with cyber responsibilities.

Companies need to be more proactive, too, perhaps with the help of internationally developed guidelines and incentives, IST said. That of course will cost money, which is a tradeoff for shareholders. Vulnerabilities will also remain, especially in supply chains where there’s always a weak link. Maybe Colonial’s experience will finally bring enough fear to boardrooms to provoke serious action.


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