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Business leaders must take urgent action to counter ransomware threat, White House warns in memo

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Key Points
  • The Biden administration is urging corporate executives and business leaders to take immediate steps to prepare for ransomware attacks.
  • "The threats are serious and they are increasing," wrote Anne Neuberger, President Joe Biden's deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology.
  • The White House memo lists five best practices for safeguarding against ransomware attacks.
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WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is urging corporate executives and business leaders to take immediate steps to prepare for ransomware attacks, warning in a new memo that cybercriminals are shifting from stealing data to disrupting core operations.

"The threats are serious and they are increasing," wrote Anne Neuberger, President Joe Biden's deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology, in a June 2 memo obtained by CNBC from the White House.

"The private sector also has a critical responsibility to protect against these threats. All organizations must recognize that no company is safe from being targeted by ransomware, regardless of size or location," Neuberger wrote.

"To understand your risk, business executives should immediately convene their leadership teams to discuss the ransomware threat and review corporate security posture and business continuity plans to ensure you have the ability to continue or quickly restore operations," she added.

The White House memo lists the following five best practices for safeguarding against ransomware attacks.

  • Backup your data, system images, and configurations, regularly test them, and keep the backups offline: Ensure that backups are regularly tested and that they are not connected to the business network, as many ransomware variants try to find and encrypt or delete accessible backups. Maintaining current backups offline is critical because if your network data is encrypted with ransomware, your organization can restore systems.
  • Update and patch systems promptly: This includes maintaining the security of operating systems, applications, and firmware, in a timely manner. Consider using a centralized patch management system; use a risk-based assessment strategy to drive your patch management program.
  • Test your incident response plan: There's nothing that shows the gaps in plans more than testing them. Run through some core questions and use those to build an incident response plan: Are you able to sustain business operations without access to certain systems? For how long? Would you turn off your manufacturing operations if business systems such as billing were offline?
  • Check your security team's work: Use a 3rd party pen tester to test the security of your systems and your ability to defend against a sophisticated attack. Many ransomware criminals are aggressive and sophisticated and will find the equivalent of unlocked doors.
  • Segment your networks: There's been a recent shift in ransomware attacks – from stealing data to disrupting operations. It's critically important that your corporate business functions and manufacturing/production operations are separated and that you carefully filter and limit internet access to operational networks, identify links between these networks and develop workarounds or manual controls to ensure ICS networks can be isolated and continue operating if your corporate network is compromised. Regularly test contingency plans such as manual controls so that safety-critical functions can be maintained during a cyber incident.

The memo follows a string of ransomware attacks that have hampered logistics and services and in some cases have sent ripples through the U.S. economy.

Ransomware attacks involve malware that encrypts files on a device or network that results in the system becoming inoperable. Criminals behind these types of cyberattacks typically demand a ransom in exchange for the release of data.

On Wednesday, the Steamship Authority of Massachusetts said its ferry service was hit with a ransomware attack, impacting daily reservations from Cape Cod to the neighboring islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

The attack comes as summer tourists begin to flock to the iconic Massachusetts vacation spots.

The Steamship Authority said in a statement to CNBC that it is working with federal, state and local authorities to determine the extent and origin of the ransomware attack.

Earlier this week, a cyberattack on Brazil's JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, disrupted production in North America and Australia, triggering concerns over rising meat prices.

On Tuesday, the company said it had made "significant progress in resolving the cyberattack" and that the "vast majority" of beef, pork, poultry and prepared foods plants would resume operations by Wednesday, according to a statement.

The White House said Tuesday that the ransomware attack on JBS is believed to have originated from a criminal organization likely based in Russia.

Last month a criminal cybergroup known as DarkSide launched a sweeping ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline.

The cyberattack forced the company to shut down approximately 5,500 miles of American fuel pipeline, leading to a disruption of nearly half of the East Coast fuel supply and causing gasoline shortages in the Southeast.

Colonial Pipeline paid the ransom to hackers, one source familiar with the situation confirmed to CNBC.