The Trump administration late Monday blamed North Korea for orchestrating a devastating blast of malware that seized networks around the world in May, a rare accusation by the American government that a nation-state perpetrated a significant cyber incident.
The digital assault, powered by the WannaCry ransomware, locked up computers at hospitals, universities and businesses in dozens of countries. Its authors demanded ransom payments and threatened to delete victims’ data if they didn’t pay up.
“The attack was widespread and cost billions, and North Korea is directly responsible,” Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
The government’s conclusion is “based on evidence” and supported by the United Kingdom and private security research firms, he added.
The attribution represents an aggressive move by the Trump administration to confront a rising digital menace and seek international unity around the need to combat destructive cyber activity.
“Stopping malicious behavior like this starts with accountability,” Bossert wrote. “It also requires governments and businesses to cooperate to mitigate cyber risk and increase the cost to hackers. The U.S. must lead this effort, rallying allies and responsible tech companies throughout the free world to increase the security and resilience of the internet.”
The Obama administration previously blamed Kim Jong Un’s regime for launching a crippling 2014 cyberattack on movie studio Sony Pictures in retaliation for a comedy film that mocked Kim.
Since then, North Korea has only grown more brazen in its hacking activity, reportedly stealing $81 million from Bangladesh Bank.
Researchers say the isolated regime has also started targeting digital currency exchanges in an effort to pilfer the hard-to-trace online money and fund the regime.
Although the U.S. has now publicly pointed the finger at North Korea for two separate high-profile cyber incidents, such accusations are still unusual.
The government often declines to comment on who it believes is culpable for major digital attacks. For instance, the U.S. has never formally blamed China for a devastating hack of federal workers’ records that compromised millions of secret background check forms, despite widespread belief that Beijing orchestrated the theft.
Intelligence officials have historically cautioned that making such accusations could reveal secret information or free up other countries to call out the U.S. over its digital espionage operations.
But increasingly, officials believe it is valuable to publicly hold foreign governments accountable for certain types of online aggression. It’s a trend that started in the Obama administration and has carried over to Trump’s presidency.
“Malicious hackers belong in prison, and totalitarian governments should pay a price for their actions,” Bossert wrote. “The rest of us must redouble our efforts to improve our collective defenses.”
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