Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s open to an exchange of criminal hackers with the United States. American President Joe Biden said he would raise the issue with Putin of extraditing Russian hackers wanted in the U.S. at their summit on Wednesday, and Putin appears willing to reciprocate.
″If we agree to extradite criminals, then, of course, Russia will go for it. But only if the other side, in this case, the United States, agrees to the same thing,” Putin said.
There is little doubt that cyber attacks using ransomware on major U.S. companies and infrastructure threaten the economy by causing enormous disruptions in supply chains. The recent hacking of meat processing giant JBS caused massive supply dislocations across the country. Another recent hack targeted the Colonial Pipeline and disrupted fuel supplies up and down the East Coast.
It’s unknown how involved the Russian president is in the execution of these attacks. It’s known that he profits from the illegal hacking, even if the Kremlin isn’t totally responsible. Some of the hacker groups have ties to Russian intelligence, but in Russia, it’s hard to tell if rogue agents are in business for themselves or part of a coordinated intelligence effort to undermine the U.S. economy.
The White House has said Biden will bring up ransomware attacks emanating from Russia at the meeting. That issue is in the spotlight after a cyber attack disrupted the North American and Australian operations of meatpacker JBS USA.
A Russia-linked hacking group was behind that attack, a U.S. source familiar with the matter said last week.
Asked if Russia would be prepared to find and prosecute cyber criminals, Putin said Russia’s behaviour here would depend on formal agreements being reached by Moscow and Washington.
Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers want Biden to give Putin an ultimatum on the hacking, believing that the Russian president could stop the attacks if he wanted to.
“I equate it to a common burglar. We put locks on our house … but you also want to make sure you’re catching the burglar and punishing the burglar,” said Senate Homeland Security Chair Gary Peters.
But Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Biden can make a point of reminding Putin at the meeting that the U.S. can and does deploy its cyber weapons when threatened. “The Russians are very well aware of our capabilities,”he said.
As one example, Warner pointed to a first-of-its-kind offensive digital strike that the U.S. military’s Cyber Command launched on an infamous Russian propaganda factory, the Internet Research Agency, knocking it offline during and after the 2018 midterms. The operation prevented the troll farm from spreading disinformation as Americans went to the polls.
Senator Marco Rubio pointed out that the seizure last week of one of the hacking group’s digital wallets with millions worth of bitcoin sent exactly the right message to the criminal gangs involved in the ransomware attacks. Their networks and profits aren’t totally secure.
But if they’re protected by the Kremlin, what good would it do?
Anything that inconveniences the U.S. is going to be supported by Putin. But the Russian president should know that he is rapidly approaching a line of no return. America can play the hacking game a lot better than Russia and make any intrusions hurt a lot more.