The Justice Department said on Monday that it had seized much of the ransom that a major U.S. pipeline operator had paid last month to a Russian hacking collective, turning the tables on the hackers by reaching into a digital wallet to snatch back millions of dollars in cryptocurrency.
Federal investigators tracked the ransom as it moved through a maze of at least 23 different electronic accounts belonging to DarkSide, the hacking group, before landing in one that a federal judge allowed them to break into, according to law enforcement officials and court documents.
The Justice Department said it seized 63.7 Bitcoins, valued at about $2.3 million. (The value of a Bitcoin has dropped over the past month.)
If you want to get Americans’ attention, hit their ability to drive. Panic buying and gas lines were quickly seen in the Southeast. Midweek, 71 percent of the gas stations in car-burdened Charlotte, North Carolina, were dry.
Ransomware takes control of a company’s or organization’s software or data until the owners make a payment. Even paying a ransom doesn’t guarantee the owners will get control again.
Initial reports said Colonial refused to pay ransom. But Colonial handed over nearly $5 million to the hackers. Bloomberg reports that the payment was in difficult-to-trace cryptocurrency. In exchange, Colonial received a decrypting tool to help restore its disabled network.
DarkSide, believed to be based in Eastern Europe, released a statement saying, “We are apolitical, we do not participate in geopolitics … Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society.”
But no one is safe from cybercrime, whether the attacker is a shadowy group or tied to a nation-state, whether they want money or data or to paralyze infrastructure. Whether the victim is an individual who opened an email containing malware or a leading technology company.
Colonial has acknowledged that its computer networks were hit by a ransomware attack — in essence, an attack in which a hacker or criminal group breaks in and encrypts the contents of a victim’s computers until a ransom is paid. And while the company has declined to say whether it has offered a ransom, the attack is focusing new attention on a potentially radical proposal to stem the growing threat posed by ransomware: making it illegal for targets to pay their attackers.
Callow says a ban is just part of the answer, and in its report, the ransomware task force said governments would need to ease the transition before moving to a world where ransom payments are prohibited. Changes would need to be phased in, it said, and allow time for governments to set up protection and support programs for victims. A bipartisan bill introduced last year in the Senate, for example, called for study into the creation of a federal fund to help support the recovery and response to significant cyber-incidents.
The clock may already be ticking — at least for some. In what is likely a first, the global insurance company Axa announced last week that it would stop offering policies in France that reimburse customers for extortion payments made to cybercriminals.