A ransomware gang that hacked the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in April posted personnel records on Tuesday that revealed highly sensitive details for almost two dozen officers, including the results of psychological assessments and polygraph tests; driver’s license images; fingerprints; social security numbers; dates of birth; and residential, financial, and marriage histories.
The operators demanded $4 million in exchange for a promise not to publish any more information and provide a decryption key that would restore the data.
“You are a state institution, treat your data with respect and think about their price,” the operators said, according to the transcript. “They cost even more than 4,000,000, do you understand that?”
“Our final proposal is to offer to pay $100,000 to prevent the release of the stolen data,” the MPD negotiator eventually replied. “If this offer is not acceptable, then it seems our conversation is complete. I think we understand the consequences of not reaching an agreement. We are OK with that outcome.”
At first the Chinese hackers ran a careful campaign. For two months, they exploited weaknesses in Microsoft Exchange email servers, picked their targets carefully, and stealthily stole entire mailboxes. When investigators eventually caught on, it looked like typical online espionage—but then things accelerated dramatically.
Around February 26, the narrow operation turned into something much bigger and much more chaotic. Just days later, Microsoft publicly disclosed the hacks—the hackers are now known as Hafnium—and issued a security fix. But by then attackers were looking for targets across the entire internet: in addition to tens of thousands of reported victims in the US, governments around the world are announcing that they were compromised too. Now at least 10 hacking groups, most of them government-backed cyber-espionage teams, are exploiting the vulnerabilities on thousands of servers in over 115 countries, according to the security firm ESET.
There are two problems to solve. The first is information asymmetry: buyers can’t adequately judge the security of software products or company practices. The second is a perverse incentive structure: the market encourages companies to make decisions in their private interest, even if that imperils the broader interests of society. Together these two problems result in companies that save money by taking on greater risk and then pass off that risk to the rest of us, as individuals and as a nation.
The only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers and users is with government intervention. Companies need to pay the true costs of their insecurities, through a combination of laws, regulations, and legal liability. Governments routinely legislate safety — pollution standards, automobile seat belts, lead-free gasoline, food service regulations. We need to do the same with cybersecurity: the federal government should set minimum security standards for software and software development.
Brandon Wales, the acting director of CISA, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, says that it will be well into 2022 before officials have fully secured the government networks compromised by Russian hackers. The list includes at least nine federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Even fully understanding the extent of the damage will take months.
“I wouldn’t call this simple,” Wales says. “There are two phases for response to this incident. There is the short-term remediation effort, where we look to remove the adversary from the network, shutting down accounts they control, and shutting down entry points the adversary used to access networks. But given the amount of time they were inside these networks—months—strategic recovery will take time.”
North Korea, along with the usual suspects of Russia and China, have all been accused of trying to swipe vaccine data from pharmaceutical companies, researchers, and others. “Although it claims to be free of the virus, North Korea has requested coronavirus vaccines and is set to receive nearly two million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, according to the Gavi Alliance, part of the United Nations-backed Covax effort which aims to deliver vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people,” the Washington Post reports. “The statement by South Korean officials is the latest in a string of accusations against North Korean hackers for attempting to steal vaccine technology, highlighting Pyongyang’s ongoing campaign to obtain sensitive information through nefarious means and its growing cyber capabilities.”