FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency was investigating about 100 different types of ransomware and compared the current spate of cyberattacks with the challenge posed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mr. Wray’s comments—among his first publicly since two recent ransomware attacks gripped the U.S. meat and oil-and-gas industries—come as senior Biden administration officials have characterized ransomware as an urgent national-security threat and said they are looking at ways to disrupt the criminal ecosystem that supports the booming industry. Each of the 100 different malicious software variants are responsible for multiple ransomware attacks in the U.S., Mr. Wray said.
Ransomware is a type of malicious computer code that locks up a victim network’s files that hackers use to demand payment for their release, typically with digital currency such as bitcoin.
This week, hackers held hostage the world’s largest meat processor, just weeks after the operator of an essential pipeline bringing gasoline to parts of the East Coast paid about $4.4 million to regain control of its operations and restore service.
Senior officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation for years have likened the need to confront rising cyber threats to the post-9/11 scramble against international terrorism.
The most prominent recent ransomware hacks represent only a fraction of some 100 types of ransomware the FBI is investigating, Mr. Wray said. “Those are just two,” he said, adding that each of those 100 different malicious software variants had affected between a dozen and 100 targets.
Complaints to the FBI and reports from the private sector show ransomware incidents have tripled in the past year, Mr. Wray said. While private-sector estimates of the toll to the U.S. economy vary, companies that track ransomware generally put the cost at hundreds of millions or billions of dollars annually and say it is rapidly increasing.
Cybersecurity experts who have tracked the proliferation of ransomware attacks for years said they were encouraged by signals from Mr. Wray and others in the Biden administration that the issue had been elevated to a top national-security priority, but said the problem remained vexing.
“The danger from cyberattack is real, and we need more urgent cooperation between our public and private sectors, and more severe consequences for global cyber attackers,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said after the JBS hack was disclosed this week.
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