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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Ransomware attacks are becoming smarter, more common, and more dangerous.

What's happening: In ransomware incidents, attackers take systems down and demand payment (usually in bitcoin) to restore access to them.

  • Compared with the political impact of election hacking or the privacy violations of data breaches, ransomware has typically been viewed as the cyber equivalent of hit-and-run robbery.
  • But aggressive new tactics, including threats of massive file dumps, are blurring the lines between ransomware and other attacks, making them a national security issue as well as a business problem.

Driving the news: In the latest indication that ransomware is moving beyond its best-known targets — state and local governments and healthcare systems — a Department of Homeland Security advisory on Tuesday reported a ransomware attack that forced a natural gas compression facility to shut down two days.

  • Analysts at Dragos identified the incident as one reported in December by the Coast Guard.
  • Last month, researchers at Emsisoft warned that ransomware attacks could disrupt the 2020 U.S. elections. "[T]hreat actors could use ransomware to tamper with the 2020 election process by attacking county-level entities and lower-level election officials," according to the Emsisoft report. Attacks could "potentially disrupt local voting infrastructure, stifle access to information, leak voter data and ultimately undermine public trust."
  • The Palm Beach County, Florida, election supervisor told the Palm Beach Post last week that the county had suffered a ransomware attack in September 2016. The county's previous election supervisor, who was in office then, denied the report.

The big picture: A raft of recent ransomware research paints an alarming picture of a threat that's still evolving.

  • The threat analysis firm Recorded Future reports a 20% increase in ransomware incidents affecting state and local governments and healthcare institutions year-to-date for 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.
  • Recorded Future and other analysts note that many ransomware attackers now also seize mountains of data from target networks before shutting them down, then use the threat of publicizing the private documents to demand payment.
  • In another trend, a whole industry of "ransomware as a service" providers is emerging to handle the technical work for would-be ransom takers.
  • IBM reports "high levels of code innovation" in the ransomware realm, and finds that the most common vulnerability exploited by ransomware is a flaw in a part of the Windows operating system called SMB, or "server message block."

Yes, but: The full scope of ransomware activity is tough to gauge because private industry is under no obligation to report incidents — and many affected companies are unlikely to admit they've been had.

  • According to the FBI's Internet Crime report for 2019, the IC3 received 2,047 complaints identified as ransomware last year, with adjusted losses of over $8.9 million.
  • That's compared to a total of 467,361 complaints of all kinds in 2019 — an average of nearly 1,300 every day — with more than $3.5 billion in losses to individual and business victims.

Go deeper

House passes $768 billion defense spending bill

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The House approved a $768 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2022 fiscal year in a bipartisan 316-113 vote on Thursday.

Why it matters: The annual bill, which authorizes Pentagon spending levels and guides policy for the department, would require women to register for the military draft, among other provisions.

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Republicans’ secret lobbying

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The five Senate Republicans who helped negotiate and draft the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill have been privately courting their Republican colleagues to pass the measure in the House.

Why it matters: House GOP leaders are actively urging their members to oppose the bill. The senators are working to undercut that effort as Monday shapes up as a do-or-die moment for the bipartisan bill.

CBC members nix border visit

A Haitian migrant carries a toddler on his shoulders today as he crosses the Rio Grande River. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus weighed visiting the U.S.-Mexico border this week to investigate the conditions faced by Haitian migrants and protest allegations of inhumane treatment by U.S. agents.

Why it matters: It's a thorny proposition both in terms of timing and messaging. Going assures a new wave of negative headlines for President Biden amid sinking popularity. And with congressional deadlines in the coming days over infrastructure, a possible government shutdown and debt-limit crisis, Democrats can't afford to lose any votes in the House.