WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI’s director told lawmakers Thursday that the bureau discourages ransomware payments to hacking groups even as significant companies in the past month have participated in multimillion-dollar transactions aimed at getting their systems back online.
“It is our policy, it is our guidance, from the FBI, that companies should not pay the ransom for several reasons,” Christopher Wray testified under questioning from members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Besides the fact that such payments can encourage additional cyberattacks, victims may not automatically get back their data despite forking over millions, “and that’s not unknown to happen,” Wray said. UNITED STATES – June 10: Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray before the House Judiciary Committee for its hearing on “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
In ransomware attacks, hackers lock up and encrypt a victim’s data and demand a payment to return it. They have proliferated in scale over the past year, targeting hospitals and police agencies, critical infrastructure, and vital industries. Some recent primary corporate targets have responded by paying the ransom, fearing that a prolonged shutdown of their businesses could have catastrophic consequences for the country and disrupt crucial supply chains.
Colonial Pipeline, which transports about 45 percent of the fuel consumed on the East Coast, last month paid a ransom of 75 bitcoin — then valued at roughly $4.4 million — in hopes of getting its system back online.
On Wednesday, JBS SA, the world’s largest meat processing company, revealed that it had paid the equivalent of $11 million to hackers who broke into its computer system last month.
Colonial Pipeline CEO Joseph Blount told lawmakers this week that the decision to pay the ransom was the most challenging choice of his career but ultimately the right thing to do, particularly given the gas shortages that surfaced within days in parts of the United States. Although the key the company was given to decrypt its data did not work perfectly, Colonial has resumed operations after a brief shutdown.
The Justice Department has said it could recover the majority of the ransomware payment after locating the virtual wallet used by the hackers. Wray said that in addition to helping companies in that way, the FBI also in certain instances has been able to obtain the encryption keys of hackers and unlock the seized data without any payment being made.
“There are a whole bunch of things we can do to prevent this activity from occurring, whether they pay the ransom or not if they communicate and coordinate and work closely with law enforcement right out of the gate,” he said. “That’s, I think, the most important part.” Calling all HuffPost superfans! Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter.