Last updated at Thu, 09 May 2024 14:48:53 GMT

If you follow cybersecurity, you’ve likely seen one of the many articles written recently on the one-year anniversary of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, which saw fuel delivery suspended for six days, disrupting air and road travel across the southeastern states of the US. The Colonial attack was the biggest cyberattack against US critical infrastructure, making it something of a game-changer in the realm of ransomware, so it is absolutely worth noting the passage of time and investigating what’s changed since.

This blog will do that, but I’ll take a slightly different tack, as I’m also marking the anniversary of the Ransomware Task Force’s (RTF) report, which offered 48 recommendations for policymakers wanting to deter, disrupt, prepare, and respond to ransomware attacks. The report was issued a week prior to the Colonial attack.

Last week, I participated in an excellent event to mark the one-year anniversary of the RTF report. During the session, various ransomware experts discussed how the ransomware landscape has evolved over the past year, how government action has shaped this, and what more needs to be done. The Institute for Security and Technology (IST), which convenes and runs the RTF, has issued a paper capturing the points above. This blog offers my own thoughts on the matter, but it’s not at all exhaustive, and I recommend giving the official paper a read.

High-profile attacks raised the stakes

Looking back over the past year, in many ways, the Colonial attack – along with ransomware attacks on the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) and JBS, the largest meat processing company in the world, all of which occurred during May 2021 – highlighted the exact concerns outlined in the RTF report. Specifically, the RTF had been convened based on the view that the high level of attacks against healthcare and other critical services through the pandemic made ransomware a matter of national security for those countries that are highly targeted.

In light of this, one of the most fundamental recommendations of the report was that this be acknowledged and met with a senior leadership and cross-governmental response. The Colonial attack resulted in President Biden addressing the issue of ransomware on national television. Subsequently, we have seen a huge cross-governmental focus on ransomware, with measures announced from departments including Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice, and State. We’ve also seen both Congress and the White House working on the issue. And while the US government has been the most vocal in its response, we have seen other governments also focusing on this issue as a priority and working together to amplify the impact of their action.

In June 2021, the Group of Seven (G7) governments of the world’s wealthiest democracies addressed ransomware at its annual summit. The resulting Communique capturing the group’s commitments includes pledges to work together to address the threat. In October 2021, the White House hosted the governments of 30 nations to discuss ransomware. The event launched the Counter Ransomware Initiative (CRI), committing to collaborate together to find solutions to reduce the ransomware threat. The CRI has identified key themes for further exploration and action, with a similar focus on deterring and disrupting attacks and driving adoption of greater cyber resilience.

Status of the RTF recommendations

This is all heartening to see and strongly aligns with the ethos and recommendations of the RTF recommendations. Drilling down into more of the details, there are many further areas of alignment, including the launch of coordinated awareness programs, introduction of sanctions, scrutiny of cryptocurrency regulations, and a focus on incident reporting regulations. The RTF paper provides a great deal more detail on these areas of alignment and the progress that has been made, as well as the areas that need more focus.

This, I believe, is the key point: A great deal of progress has been made, both in terms of building understanding of the problem and in developing alignment and collaboration among stakeholders, yet there is a great deal more work to be done. The partnerships between multiple governments — and between the public and private sectors — are hugely important for improving our odds against the attackers, but progress will not happen overnight. It will take time to see the real impact of the measures already taken, and there are yet measures to be determined, developed, and implemented.

Uncertain times

We must keep our eye on the ball and stay engaged, which is not easy when there are so many other demands on governments’ and business leaders’ limited time and resources. The Russia/Ukraine conflict has undoubtedly been a very time-consuming area of focus, though expectations that offensive cyber operations would be a key element of the Russian action have perhaps helped increase awareness of the need for cyber resilience. The economic downturn is another huge pressure and will almost certainly reduce critical infrastructure providers’ investments in cybersecurity as the cost of business increases in other areas, resulting in budget cuts. While both of these developments may distract governments and business leaders from ransomware, they may also increase ransomware activity as economic deprivation and job scarcity encourage more people to turn to cybercrime to make a living.

According to law enforcement and other government agencies, as well as the cyber insurance sector, the reports of ransomware incidents are slowing down or declining. Due to a long-standing lack of consistent incident reporting, it’s hard to contextualize this, and while we very much hope it points to a reduction in attacks, we can’t say that that’s the case. Security researchers report that activity on the dark web seems to be continuing at pace with 2021, a record year for ransomware attacks. It’s possible that the shift in view from law enforcement could be due to fears that involving them will result in regulatory repercussions; reports to insurers could be down due to the introduction of more stringent requirements for claims.

The point is that it’s too early to tell, which is why we need to maintain a focus on the issue and seek out data points and anecdotal evidence to help us understand the impact of the government action taken so far, so we can continue to explore and adjust our approach. An ongoing focus, continued collaboration, and more data will help ensure we put as much pressure as possible on ransomware actors and the governments and systems that allow them to flourish. Over time, this is how we will make progress to ransomware prevention.

Additional reading:


Get the latest stories, expertise, and news about security today.