May 8, 2023 - Technology

Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack's unexpected legacy

Illustration of a computer wearing a bandit's mask.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Looking back at the legacy of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, experts are still unclear on why this was the incident that sparked such a massive sea change across policymaking and boardrooms.

Flashback: This weekend marks two years since a Russian ransomware gang targeted Colonial's pipeline, which provides roughly 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast.

The big picture: The legacy of the incident is often called into question over one simple distinction: Russian ransomware hackers didn't shut down the pipeline themselves; Colonial did.

  • The ransomware only infected computers tied to the pipeline's billing systems, but Colonial has said it decided to stop the flow of fuel through the pipeline as a precaution to prevent the file-encrypting malware from spreading to its operations.
  • But in the days following the attack, several reports suggested Colonial also shut down the pipeline in part because the company couldn't figure out how to properly bill customers.
  • Even so, experts told Axios this week that if Colonial hadn't shut the pipeline down and the malware had spread to the pipeline, the long-term impact could have been more devastating. Colonial declined to comment for this story.

Zoom out: Ransomware was already wreaking havoc on local governments, hospital services and schools before Colonial Pipeline captured the nation's attention.

  • The difference here, though, was the regional impact Colonial had, said Ben Miller, vice president of services at critical infrastructure security firm Dragos, which had a small role in helping Colonial recover from the mess.

What they're saying: "What I've later learned is, I guess, there's a certain amount of attention you get when there's a real impact to human lives," Charles Carmakal, senior vice president at cyber firm Mandiant, who helped investigate the Colonial incident, told Axios.

  • "But when you impact gas and meat, people really care," he added.

Between the lines: Even if Colonial wasn't a precise example of the impact ransomware can have on critical infrastructure, the attack forced people to take these security threats seriously and implement policies that had been languishing, experts said.

  • Before Colonial, getting the federal government to prioritize implementing requirements for critical infrastructure security was a difficult task, Mike Hamilton, CISO at Critical Insight and former CISO for the City of Seattle, told Axios.

The intrigue: The swift succession of attacks inspired boardrooms and executives to revisit their own ransomware response plans.

  • "That became a focal point within the board that previously hadn't had that same level of tension," Miller said. "The level of questions they were asking [about ransomware preparedness] was much more detailed."

Yes, but: The regulatory and industry changes sparked by Colonial still need to go further, experts said.

  • Wendi Whitmore, senior vice president of Palo Alto Networks' Unit 42 threat intelligence team, told Axios she'd like to see continued bilateral agreements between countries to crack down on ransomware.
  • "It's not just the technical detection capabilities; we need true deterrence," she said.
  • Companies are also still behind "where we want to be" on protecting critical security systems, Miller said, but "we are building towards that."

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