The United States’ Justice Department has formed a special taskforce to tackle the increasing number of ransomware cyber-attacks.

The aim is to make the extortion less lucrative by targeting the digital ecosystem which supports it.

The task force will increase training and dedicate more resources to combat ransomware attacks, seek to improve intelligence sharing across the department, and work to identify links between criminal actors and nation states, according to an internal Justice Department memorandum

It calls for developing a strategy which targets the entire criminal ecosystem around ransomware by prosecutions, disrupting ongoing attacks and curbs on services which support them, such as online forums that advertise the sale of ransomware or hosting services which facilitate ransomware campaigns.

“By any measure, 2020 was the worst year ever when it comes to ransomware and related extortion events,” acting deputy Attorney General John Carlin was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal. “And if we don’t break the back of this cycle, a problem that’s already bad is going to get worse.”

Criminal hackers continue to demand ever greater sums of money from victims to reinvest in cyber tools which enable more and better attacks, he added. Estimates on the cost of ransomware attacks to companies vary widely, but Carlin says he has seen ransomware payments of more than $20m (€16.6m).

“It wasn’t a hard calculation for the company because they could say it would easily be hundreds of millions in damages for them if they didn’t pay. In almost every case where they paid, they knew the amount of damage was 10, 20 times what they were paying,” he said.

In an internal justice department memorandum this week, Carlin described ransomware as not only posing an economic threat to businesses, but also jeopardising the health and safety of Americans.

Notorious ransomware attacks include a series last October which disrupted operations and patient care at several hospitals in the US at the start of a rise in admissions due to coronavirus.

The taskforce will consist of the department’s criminal, national security and civil divisions, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the executive office of US Attorneys, which supports the 93 top federal prosecutors across the country. It will also work to boost collaboration with the private sector, international partners and other US government departments such as the treasury and homeland security.

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