Governments must crack down on hacking gangs, US tells world

A US push for prosecutions follows a string of attacks on American infrastructure linked to Russia-based cyber-crooks

Computer hacker or Cyber attack concept background

The US on Tuesday urged UN members to prosecute cyber-criminals in the wake of a series of ransomware attacks on US infrastructure that caused billions of dollars of damage.

Linda Thomas Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, told the UN Security Council that governments must get tough on hacking gangs that encrypt computer systems and demand a ransom to unlock them.

Several US companies, including the global meat giant JBS, the Colonial oil pipeline and the software firm SolarWinds recently suffered ransomware attacks. The FBI blames them on Russia-based hackers.

“Countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” Ms Thomas Greenfield told the council.

“When a state is notified of harmful activities, emanating from its own territory, it must take reasonable steps to address it, given the transnational nature of cyberspace.”

She spoke during the UN council’s first formal public meeting on cybersecurity. The 15-nation body has tackled cyber-threats in the past, but only informally, both in public or behind closed doors.

“The risk is clear: our infrastructure online and off is at stake,” said Ms Thomas Greenfield.

“Our most basic and critical services from the food we eat to the water we drink to the health care services we all rely on during the pandemic, are targets.”

The online meeting came on the heels of talks between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over Russia-based hackers striking major American firms and infrastructure.

At a summit earlier this month in the Swiss city of Geneva, Mr Biden set out red lines for Moscow, which is often linked to major hacks on countries' key infrastructure.

The US president laid out 16 “untouchable” entities, ranging from power stations to water distribution.

UN members agreed in a disarmament committee in 2015 to refrain from malicious cyber-attacks on each other’s key infrastructure.

But cyber-strikes have become commonplace and some are linked directly to governments.

Other famous state-linked hacks include North Korea’s alleged digital strike on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 and the malicious computer worm Stuxnet, reportedly created by the US and Israel to damage Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

Tuesday’s meeting was called by Estonia, which heads the Council for the month of June and which in 2007 had its government servers frozen in an early example of cyber warfare amid a dispute with Russia.

Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said cyber-attacks continued during the coronavirus pandemic, with hackers presenting a “real and tangible threat” to hospitals and healthcare systems.

“The humanitarian effects of tampering with critical infrastructure could be devastating,” said Ms Kallas.

“Imagine what would happen if, in the middle of a drought, a country’s water supply chain stopped operating or during the cold winter months, a nation’s power grid was disrupted.”

The ministerial-level meeting was held online and suffered from repeated technical glitches.