The recent cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, the operator of the largest petroleum pipeline in the U.S., shows how internet criminals are increasingly targeting companies and organizations for ransom in what officials and experts term a growing national security threat.These hackers penetrate victims’ computer systems with a form of malware that encrypts the files, then they demand payments to release the data. In 2013, a ransomware attack typically targeted a person’s desktop or laptop, with users paying $100 to $150 in ransom to regain access to their files, according to Michael Daniel, president and CEO of Cyber Threat Alliance.“It was a fairly minimal affair,” said Daniel, who served as cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council under U.S. President Barack Obama, at the RSA Cybersecurity Conference this week.In recent years, ransomware has become a big criminal enterprise. Last year, victim organizations in North America and Europe paid an average of more than $312,000 in ransom, up from $115,000 in 2019, according to a recent report by the cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks. The highest ransom paid doubled to $10 million last year while the highest ransom demand grew to $30 million, according to Palo Alto Networks.“Those are some very significant amounts of money,” Daniel said. “And it’s not just individuals being targeted but things like school systems.”Last year, some of the largest school districts in the U.S., including Clark County Public Schools in Nevada, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, FILE – In this Sept. 12, 2019, photo, County Sheriff Janis Mangum stands in a control room at the county jail in Jefferson, Ga. A ransomware attack in March took down the office’s computer system.Colonial’s payment wasn’t the largest ransom paid by a single organization. Last year, Garmin, the maker of the popular fitness tracker, reportedly FILE – In this Aug. 22, 2019, file photo, signs on a bank of computers tell visitors that the machines are not working at the public library in Wilmer, Texas. Twenty-two local governments in Texas were hit by ransomeware in August 2019.Last month, the U.S. Justice Department created a task force to develop strategies to combat ransomware.“This is something we’re acutely focused on,” Monaco said.In a report to the Biden administration last month, an industry-backed task force called for a more aggressive response to ransomware.“It will take nothing less than our total collective effort to mitigate the ransomware scourge,” the task force wrote.In a typical ransomware attack, hackers lock a user’s or company’s data, offering keys to unlock the files in exchange for a ransom.But over the past year, hackers have adopted a new extortion tactic. Instead of simply encrypting a user’s files for extortion, cyber actors “exfiltrate” data, threatening to leak or destroy it unless a ransom is paid.Using dedicated leak sites, the hackers then release the data slowly in an effort “to increase pressure on the victim organization to pay the extortion, rather than posting all of the exfiltrated data at once.”In March, cybercriminals used this method when they encrypted a large Florida public school district’s servers and stole more than 1 terabyte of sensitive data, demanding $40 million in return.“If this data is published you will be subject to huge court and government fines,” the Conti cybercrime gang warned a Broward County Public Schools official.The district refused to pay.Cybersecurity experts have a term for this tactic: double extortion. The method gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as cyber criminals used it to extort hospitals and other critical service providers.“They’re looking to increase the cost to the victim,” Meyers said at the RSA conference.Recent attacks show cyber criminals are upping their game. In October, hackers struck Finnish psychotherapy service Vastaamo, stealing the data of 400 employees and about 40,000 patients. The hackers not only demanded a ransom from Vastaamo but also smaller payments from individual patients.This was the first notable case of a disturbing new trend in ransomware attacks, according to researchers at Check Point.“It seems that even when riding the wave of success, threat groups are in constant quest for more innovative and more fruitful business models,” the researchers wrote.

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