WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI and other federal agencies are increasingly trying to counter cyber threats through tools other than criminal charges, the FBI’s top cyber official said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Arrests and indictments of foreign cybercriminals are still appropriate in certain circumstances, and something the FBI tracks “every day of the week,” said Deputy Director Bryan Vorndran. However, as federal agencies seek to be as disruptive of cybercrime as possible, FBI officials think carefully about how best to time an indictment, or whether an indictment is the best course of action at all.

“We’re just a lot more mature in the area of ​​working with our cross-agency partners and really keeping an eye on how we’re making the greatest impact,” Vorndran said.

The FBI, he said, is now “very open to being told” about an adversary, “You know what, as a team member, it might not be the right time to press charges, but it can.” may very well be the right time to deploy,” an action by the US Cyber ​​​​Command.

The development reflects multiple government agencies sharing responsibility and playing a unique role in combating a cyber threat that has only intensified over the past decade. The Justice Department has long viewed indictments of foreign hackers as a way to “name and shame” them and deter the hostile governments that employ them. However, other government agencies bring their own powers to the table that may trump the use of criminal charges or impose greater costs or deterrence.

Cyber ​​Command, an arm of the Department of Defense established in 2010, has become aggressive in pursuing hackers and has conducted more than two dozen operations to prevent meddling in the 2020 presidential election and more recently against ransomware gangs. The White House has shared information about Russian hackers with the Kremlin for action. Last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced the detention of members of the REvil ransomware gang.

The FBI itself has taken action other than charges. In June, most of a roughly $4.4 million ransom paid by Colonial Pipeline to hackers who carried out a ransomware attack was recovered. It won a court order in April that gave it remote access to hundreds of computers to counter a massive hack of Microsoft Exchange email server software.

Vorndran spoke to the AP after participating in a Silverado Policy Accelerator discussion last week, in which he said the FBI is moving away from “an initial model of charges and arrests and towards the whole of imposing costs on our adversaries.”

“That’s probably a simple way of saying that we’re really trying to work with everyone, public and private partners, to understand the totality of the capabilities and agencies that are in place… so that we can have the most impact on these matters right now,” he said in the interview.

Indictments, a law enforcement bread-and-butter tactic, can lock accused hackers in their home countries and alert opponents that their actions have been discovered. However, their practical effect is often limited, as there is generally a minimal chance that an accused will be brought to the United States for a trial.

Perhaps the first prominent example was a 2014 case against five Chinese military hackers accused of spying on secrets of major American companies. In the years since, prosecutors have charged North Korean computer programmers with hacking Sony Pictures Entertainment; Russian Secret Agents in Yahoo Violation; Iranian hackers attack small dam outside New York City; and Chinese agents targeting firms developing vaccines for the coronavirus.

The cases have all attracted public attention, although they have hardly stopped the hacker attacks from abroad. And given the lack of extradition treaties with countries the US sees as the top cyber perpetrators, arrests of accused hackers are exceedingly rare.

However, there were isolated exceptions when hackers wanted by the USA had traveled from their home countries and been arrested. That happened last fall when the Justice Ministry unsealed an indictment against Yaroslav Vasinskyi for the Kaseya ransomware attack after the suspected Ukrainian hacker traveled to Poland.

The arrest prompted a Justice Department press briefing with Attorney General Merrick Garland, a sure sign that prosecutors will not abandon their pursuit of charges when they deem it appropriate.

“It’s certainly a tool that the interagency agencies and the FBI are willing and working toward,” Vorndran said of indictments, “but it’s not the only tool.”


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