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JBS Cyberattack Just The Latest Major Company To Be Shut Down By Hackers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world's largest meat processing company, JBS, says its meatpacking operations are being restored after a ransomware attack. The FBI is blaming a group with links to Russia. This is the latest example of a major company being shut down by criminal hackers apparently based in Russia. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here with the latest.

Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, bring us up to speed on the status of the JBS meat processing plants in the U.S.

MYRE: Well, after shutdowns the past couple days here in the U.S., as well as Canada and Australia, the company expects to resume most operations as soon as today. Now, the company hasn't actually confirmed this, and it's being closely watched to see if there might be any impact on meat supplies or meat prices. But it, again, shows the risk to this critical infrastructure.

A month ago, I think many people didn't know who Colonial Pipeline was and had no idea that's how gasoline was reaching local gas stations on the East Coast. And until this week, I think many people hadn't heard of JBS and had no idea this is where the ground beef at their local supermarket was coming from. But now we're seeing how these large, though largely invisible, companies are so critical to everyday life.

SHAPIRO: And is that why the Biden administration is so eager to jump into the fray here?

MYRE: Yes, Ari. I mean, absolutely. President Biden came into office promising a robust response to cyberthreats and presented a very detailed executive order last month. But there are very real limitations on what the government can do. These hacks we're talking about are on private companies. And in this case, it looks like Russian criminals hit a global meat supplier, JBS, that's based in Brazil. The White House may be calling on the Russian government and publicly scolding President Putin for tolerating cybercriminals, but it's very unlikely this will make it stop. Biden will have a chance to raise this face-to-face with Putin two weeks from today at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland.

SHAPIRO: It really looks like the hackers have the upper hand here. How have they moved so far ahead of governments and companies trying to defend against these hacks?

MYRE: The hackers have really built a very lucrative and largely risk-free system. One group develops the malware, then they supply it to other groups to carry out the actual attacks. It's often a very simple phishing operation. Attackers just need one company employee with a weak password who gets tricked into handing over a password. Then the hackers are inside the computer system. They freeze it up and demand ransom. The criminals get paid anonymously in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. It's very hard to trace. And they operate from countries like Russia, where they aren't prosecuted.

SHAPIRO: Could those cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin be an avenue to limiting or preventing these hacks?

MYRE: Well, I asked Dmitri Alperovitch. He's a cybersecurity expert who runs the Silverado Policy Accelerator. He says the U.S. government needs to regulate cryptocurrencies just like other large banking transactions with all the parties fully identified.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: By requiring any player that is performing transfers from currency, like U.S. dollars, into Bitcoin to provide their identification, provide their passport information, their driver's license, et cetera, will allow them to start tracking these payments and determine who they are ultimately reaching.

MYRE: And one final note, Ari - another ransomware attack was reported today. This time the victim is the Steamship Authority, which ferries passengers from the New England coast to the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Now, this may not qualify as critical infrastructure unless you have a vacation home there, but it shows how utterly routine these attacks have become.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Myre.

Thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.