President Joe Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that he must “take action” against cybercriminals operating in his country and that the United States reserves the right to “defend its people and its people. critical infrastructure ”against future attacks. said the White House.
The warning to Putin on Friday was largely a repeat of the harsh rhetoric Biden used at their meeting in Geneva last month, when he warned that there would be consequences for continuing cyber attacks emanating from Russia. . Since then, a new ransomware attack linked to Russia-based hacking group REvil has caused widespread disruption, putting Biden under increasing pressure this time around to marry the warning with action – though none have been immediately announced.
“I told him very clearly that the United States expects a ransomware operation to come from its soil, even if it is not state sponsored, that it will act if we give it enough information to act on who it is, ”Biden said, speaking to reporters at an event on economic competitiveness. When asked if there would be any consequences, he replied: “Yes”.
The call with Putin highlighted how the threat of ransomware from criminal hacker gangs has turned into an urgent national security challenge for the White House, and he suggested a possible concession from the administration that the warnings reports addressed to the Russian leader had failed to curb criminal activity that targeted businesses around the world.
A White House statement announcing the hour-long appeal also highlighted a US-Russian deal that will allow humanitarian aid to flow into Syria. Both parts of the agenda show that while Biden is committed to toughening Russia up against hacking, there is an inherent desire to avoid escalating tensions as the administration seeks Russia out. cooperates, or at least does not interfere, with US actions in other areas, including Syria, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and climate change.
In his appeal with Putin, in addition to reiterating the need for Russia to act and that the United States is ready to act in response, Biden also “stressed that he is determined to continue his engagement against the broader threat. posed by ransomware, ”the White House said. .
Biden told reporters that the United States and Russia have “established a means of communication now on a regular basis so that we can communicate with each other when each of us thinks that something is going on in another country that affects the home country. .And so on well.I’m optimistic.
In its own summary of the appeal, the Kremlin said that “Putin noted that despite the Russian side’s willingness to jointly stop criminal activities in the information field, US agencies have made no demands. over the past month “.
The Kremlin said the two leaders stressed the need for cybersecurity cooperation, which it said “must be permanent, professional and non-politicized and should be conducted through special communication channels … and with respect of international law “.
The Kremlin statement also noted that Biden and Putin approached the situation in Syria “with particular emphasis on humanitarian aspects” and “gave a positive assessment of the coordination of Russian and US efforts on the issue, including in the Council. UN Security Policy “.
The White House declined to discuss the tone of Biden’s call, although press secretary Jen Psaki said she had focused significantly on the latest breach, which cybersecurity researchers said they had infected victims in at least 17 countries, largely through companies that remotely manage IT infrastructure for multiple clients.
While Biden previously said the attack caused “minimal damage” and did not appear to target critical infrastructure, the global scale and the fact that it occurred so soon after the Geneva put immediate pressure on the administration to respond.
Officials did not immediately announce specific actions they were taking or would consider taking. There are few easy options to resolve the threat without risking conflict that could spiral out of control beyond the realm of cybersecurity.
The Biden administration took office following a massive cyberespionage campaign known as SolarWinds that U.S. officials linked to Russian intelligence agents. But ransomware attacks, typically carried out by criminal hacker gangs rather than state-sponsored hackers, appear to have eclipsed old-fashioned espionage as a potent threat.
An attack in May on a pipeline that supplies about half of the fuel consumed on the east coast forced the company to temporarily suspend operations. Colonial Pipeline paid around $ 4.4 million in ransom, although U.S. officials were able to recover a large chunk of that sum during a law enforcement operation last month.
Hackers also recently extorted an $ 11 million ransom from JBS SA, the world’s largest meat processor.