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Home » US infiltrates big ransomware gang: ‘We hacked the hackers’
The FBI and international partners have at least temporarily dismantled the network of a prolific ransomware gang they infiltrated last year, potentially sparing victims including hospitals and school districts $130 million (£105 million) in ransom payments, US officials said .
“Put simply, we hacked the hackers through lawful means,” Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said at a news conference.
Officials said the target consortium, known as Hive, operates one of the five largest ransomware networks in the world and has heavily targeted hospitals and other healthcare providers.
The FBI quietly gained access to its control panel in July and was able to obtain software keys to decode the network of some 1,300 victims worldwide, FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Officials credited the German police and other international partners.
However, it wasn’t immediately clear how the shutdown will impact Hive’s long-term operations.
Officials didn’t announce any arrests, but said they would map out the Hive administrators who manage the software and affiliates who infect targets and negotiate with victims to continue law enforcement.
“I think everyone involved with Hive should be concerned because this investigation is ongoing,” Wray said.
On Wednesday night, FBI agents seized the computer infrastructure in Los Angeles used to support the network.
Two dark Hive websites were seized: one used to reveal data of non-paying victims, the other used to negotiate extortion payments.
“Cybercrime is an ever-evolving threat, but as I said, the Department of Justice will spare no resources to bring anyone who attacks the United States with a ransomware attack to justice,” Mr. Garland said.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland said that thanks to the infiltration led by the FBI’s Tampa office in one case, agents were able to prevent a Hive attack on a Texas school district and stop him from receiving a five-year payment million dollars (4 million pounds) to contribute.
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
The operation is a major win for the Justice Department.
The ransomware scourge is the world’s biggest cybercrime problem, with everything from the UK Post Office and Ireland’s Health Service to the Costa Rican government crippled by Russian-speaking syndicates protected by the Kremlin.
The criminals block or encrypt victims’ computer networks, steal sensitive data and demand large sums of money.
As an example of Hive’s threat, Mr Garland said it stopped a Midwestern hospital from accepting new patients in 2021 at the height of the Covid-19 epidemic.
The online takedown notice, in alternating English and Russian, names Europol and Germany’s federal and state police as partners in the effort.
The German news agency dpa quoted the Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office as saying that cyber specialists in southwestern Esslingen were instrumental in penetrating Hive’s criminal IT infrastructure after a local company fell victim.
In a statement, Europol said companies in more than 80 countries, including oil multinationals, have been compromised by Hive.
It said Europol had helped analyze cryptocurrency, malware and other analytics, and law enforcement agencies from 13 countries were involved in the effort.
The seal of the Department of Justice (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
According to a US government advisory last year, from June 2021 to November 2022, Hive ransomware actors harassed more than 1,300 companies worldwide and received approximately $100 million (£80 million) in ransom payments.
It is said that criminals using Hive ransomware have targeted a wide range of businesses and critical infrastructure, including governments, manufacturing companies, and particularly healthcare and public health organizations.
The threat caught the attention of the highest levels of the Biden administration two years ago after a series of high-profile attacks that threatened critical infrastructure and global industry.
For example, in May 2021, hackers targeted the country’s largest fuel pipeline, prompting operators to shut it down briefly and make a multimillion-dollar ransom payment, most of which the US government recovered.
Federal officials have used a variety of tools to combat the problem, but traditional law enforcement measures such as arrests and prosecutions have done little to frustrate criminals.
The FBI has previously gained access to decryption keys.
This happened in the case of a major ransomware attack in 2021 on Kaseya, a company whose software powers hundreds of websites.
However, it took a few weeks to wait to help the victims unblock affected networks.