AI making ransomware easier, more prevalent, committee hears

Artificial intelligence (AI) is making ransomware faster and easier to use as the online crime hits record levels, experts said at a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

“We have tremendous concern about the future of AI and the direction it is allowing criminal actors to take, including more sophisticated deepfakes that ultimately form the first step in the chain of ransomware attacks,” said Megan Stifel, chief strategy officer at the Institute for Security and Technology.

“Unfortunately, the stakes keep getting higher,” she said.

As attacks have become more complex, and the barrier for entry into deploying ransomware gets lower, organizations are more frequently facing threats to the sensitive, personal data of their employees and customers, Stifel told the Financial Services subcommittee on national security and illicit finance.

“As AI continues to grow more sophisticated, cyber criminals will harness these technological advancements to exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims,” Vice Chair Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.) said.

According to crypto-tracking firm Chainalysis, ransomers stole more than $1 billion from U.S. organizations in 2023, the highest amount ever recorded, with a 70 percent increase in the number of victims from the year prior.

“Small businesses and Main Street are getting hammered,” Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), said.

Jacqueline Burns Koven, head of cyber threat intelligence at Chainalysis, said the frequency and severity of ransomware against U.S. organizations, especially financial institutions, reached “an unprecedented milestone” in 2023.

Ransomware gangs are now using sophisticated attacks to go “big-game hunting,” with “as much as 75 percent of [ransom payments being] $1 million or more” in 2023, Koven said.

Lawmakers on the subcommittee discussed measures such as increasing resources available to federal law enforcement, offering tax credits for organizations that take preventative cybersecurity measures, making cybersecurity insurance more accessible and incentivizing the training of more cybersecurity and investigative personnel.

“The cybersecurity workforce is obviously paramount to the safety and soundness of the U.S. economy,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), said.

“With AI and automation central to modern cyber defenses, it is critical we educate and train the cyber workforce of tomorrow,” Daniel Sergile, senior consulting director from Unit 42, a cyber crimes task force of Palo Alto Networks, said in his written statement to the committee.

Though AI is enabling bad actors, it is also helping law enforcement and cybersecurity professionals track ransomers and craft more resilient defenses, Sergile said.

“With tooling that has machine learning and artificial intelligence, we can absolutely keep pace and parity,” Sergile said.

“Fighting fire with fire is simply the answer,” he said.

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