FBI Told Congress That Ransomware Payments Shouldn't be Prohibited

 

After meeting with the business sector and cybersecurity experts, the Biden administration backed away from the concept of barring ransomware payments, according to a top cybersecurity official on Wednesday. At an Aspen Security Forum event, Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and new technology, said, "Initially, I thought that was a good approach. We know that ransom payments are at the heart of this ecosystem.”

A top FBI official told US lawmakers in July that making ransom payments to cybercriminals illegal is not the best way to combat the danger of ransomware. According to Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, banning ransom payments could unwittingly open the door to more extortion by ransomware gangs. 

"If we ban ransom payments now, you're putting US companies in a position to face yet another extortion, which is being blackmailed for paying the ransom and not sharing that with authorities," Vorndran said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on ransomware. 

The debate over whether or not ransomware payments should be illegal exemplifies the larger issue that policymakers have in trying to combat a crime that takes advantage of a victim's financial incentives. According to cybersecurity experts, paying in the hopes of rapidly fixing an issue is often more appealing than refusing to negotiate, having to recover data from backups, and risking the publishing of sensitive information online. 

“We heard loud and clear from many that the state of resilience is inadequate, and as such, if we banned ransom payments we would essentially drive even more of that activity underground and lose insight into it that will enable us to disrupt it,” Anne said. 

Work to gain transparency into cryptocurrency networks, which have become a popular method of payment for cybercriminals, is one of the disruptive attempts. The National Security Council, according to Neuberger, is working with other members of an interagency task force to review regulations and safeguards that would allow for improved payment monitoring. 

“Our driving goal is rapid tracing and really the strengthening of domestic and international virtual currency regulatory environments to enable that,” she said. “One big part of it is also building in those types of protections in the design of new virtual currencies and addressing that in a way that we can both have the innovation, and not have a broad illicit use that’s driving criminal activity.”