The continued flurry of high-profile ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure targets in the United States is climbing the ladder of presidential priorities – with President Biden saying it’s on the agenda for his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month, and White House officials confirming that cryptocurrency will be part of a new examination of global corruption.

Cyber Summit?

While the U.S. and Russian presidents are expected to discuss a wide range of issues, the White House confirmed this week that ransomware attacks – including the Colonial Pipeline and JBS attacks of recent weeks that are said to have originated on Russian soil – will be on the list for the June 16 summit to be held in Geneva.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also announced that President Biden has initiated a “rapid strategic review” looking at the rise in ransomware attacks.

“[Cybersecurity] is an issue that we have discussed with the Russian government – this specific issue – and we’ve discussed it in the past and delivered the message that responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals,” Psaki told reporters at a briefing on June 2.

In addition to the JBS ransomware attack that made news this week, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) confirmed last week that it was targeted in a spear-phishing campaign that has been attributed to the same Russian-backed group responsible for the SolarWinds Orion campaign that came to light late last year.

Psaki said she could not predict the outcome of the summit discussions, but said President Biden will be firm on the issue and send a clear message to Putin.

“Harboring criminal entities that are intending to do harm, that are doing harm to the critical infrastructure in the United States is not acceptable,” Psaki said. “We’re not going to stand by that; we will raise that, and we are not going to take options off the table.”

As far as the strategic review, Psaki said it will focus on four main areas: disruption of ransomware infrastructure and actors, building an international coalition, expanding cryptocurrency analysis, and reviewing the nation’s own ransomware policies.

The White House is focusing on collaboration with the first two areas, both nationally and internationally. Psaki acknowledged the importance of working closely with the private sector to assist in disrupting the ransomware process, as well as working with international coalition partners to hold countries harboring threat actors accountable. The cryptocurrency analysis will also help further track ransomware actors that manage to extract a ransom from their victims.

“This is an internal policy process — essentially, one that’s looking at all of these entities within our national security/economic team,” Psaki said.

Crypto-Currency Figures in Corruption Order

Separately, President Biden issued a National Security Study Memorandum on June 3 that declares corruption to be an “economic and national security priority,” and pledges the U.S. to “lead international efforts to bring transparency to the global financial system and close loopholes that undermine democracy.”

The memorandum orders a 200-day review by various U.S. government agencies of corruption issues. That will result in recommendations for how the government can improve efforts to confront corruption “at home and abroad,” curb illicit activities in the U.S. and international financial systems in order to reduce financial secrecy and hold corrupt actors accountable.

“We will take special aim at confronting corruption, which rots democracy from the inside and is increasingly weaponized by authoritarian states to undermined democratic institutions,” the Biden administration said. “We will crackdown on tax havens and illicit financing that contribute to income inequality, fund terrorism and generate pernicious foreign influence.

While the memorandum does not mention cryptocurrency – one of the favorite mediums of payment in ransomware attacks – a senior Biden administration official said during a background briefing on June 3 that cryptocurrency will figure into the review and recommendations.

Asked if cryptocurrency is part of the “larger discussion” of the anti-corruption effort, the administration official replied, “We’ll certainly be looking at the impact of cryptocurrency as a means of illicit finance.”

“We’ve seen, over many years, how corruption overseas … the proceeds of corruption overseas, make their way into the U.S. and international financial systems through anonymity,” the official said.

“So, this isn’t in any way limited to new technologies like crypto, but certainly as we think about the regulatory regime – the Bank Secrecy Act that governs much of this agenda, in terms of illicit finance – we will be asking for ideas around how we might want to modernize that regime to deal with issues like crypto, certainly,” the official said.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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