The Biden administration is moving to treat ransomware attacks as a national security threat, using intelligence agencies to spy on foreign criminals and contemplating offensive cyber operations against hackers inside Russia, U.S. officials and other sources familiar with the matter said.
Although using the military to take action against criminals wouldn't be without precedent, it's controversial in legal circles, and any American cyber action against targets in Russia would risk retaliation. But officials say criminal ransomware attacks from abroad, once a nuisance, have become a major source of economic damage, as the disruption of gasoline and meat supplies in recent weeks has illustrated.
In an example of the new approach, the White House was unusually quick to point the finger at Russia for harboring the attackers, just one day after officials learned of the ransomware strike on the meat processor JBS. It's extremely unusual for a White House to publicly call out a foreign adversary over a single ransomware attack.
But momentum was building even before President Joe Biden took office. As the onslaught of ransomware attacks against hospitals and local governments increased, the National Security Agency began spying on certain foreign criminal hacker groups in the summer of 2019, according to a former official and three other sources familiar with the matter. Officials say the intelligence collection puts the U.S. in a better position to target the groups if the president orders a strike.