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With JBS cyberattack, ransomware industry achieves critical mass

The Memorial Day weekend ransomware attack that left the world's largest meat processor hobbled also had CEOs around the globe asking, "Am I next?"

Why it matters: The attack on Brazil-based JBS came just weeks after a similar attack on Colonial Pipeline, the U.S.'s largest refined-fuel pipeline operator. Attacks that disrupt food and energy supplies are the kinds that rouse governments to strike back.

Details: JBS said Sunday the attack hit its servers in the U.S. and Australia. Many of the firm's U.S. plants were shut down Tuesday, but by evening the company's CEO promised that "the vast majority" of its plants would be operating Wednesday.

The big picture: Ransomware is a longstanding problem, but it has recently become a "global pandemic" (as former U.S. cyber leader Chris Krebs puts it) thanks to the rise of a profitable industry around it.

  • 2020 saw roughly $350 million in cryptocurrency payments to ransomware attacks, triple the previous year's take, per one study.
  • Startup costs are cheap because malware providers have built low-cost "software as a service"-style ransomware tools that don't demand wizard-level skills to use.
  • Companies and organizations whose data and/or networks are locked up typically choose to pay a ransom rather than go through the extended trauma of accepting data loss and rebuilding systems from scratch.
  • Bitcoin makes it possible for the criminals to collect that ransom efficiently and anonymously.

How it works: Today's ransomware world operates like a macabre parody of the modern tech industry.

  • The original backers, the "venture capitalists" in the equation, are governments looking to "disrupt" their enemies.
  • These investors pay third-party hacking groups who function as "entrepreneurs" and "startups."
  • Their products are technical platforms that enable "users" to launch ransomware attacks, producing a revenue stream.

Ransomware has enabled a scalable business model for one species of cyberattack, but it requires careful calibration.

  • Attackers must select targets big enough to pay up but not so big that governments intervene to shut the ransomware operation down. The Colonial attack crossed that line, and the Darkside group that made it possible has since apparently disbanded.
  • Attackers also have to choose ransom amounts carefully: They want a big payoff, sure, but they also don't want to demand so much that victims just throw up their hands and choose to take the data loss.

The most effective "vaccine" for the ransomware pandemic would be tighter security at target companies, who are commonly infiltrated by e-mail phishing attacks or other vulnerabilities. But that's slow and hard to make happen.

Another potential remedy could involve cutting ransomware business' profits by blocking cryptocurrency pathways.

  • Bitcoin itself is tough to monitor. But governments, if provoked, could pretty quickly crack down on companies that move assets between the crypto underworld and the by-the-book economy.

Or the Biden administration could turn the screws on Russia to stop funding and backing the ransomware plague — as most intelligence and industry experts believe it does.

  • President Biden is set for a summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin June 16 in Geneva.

Yes, but: U.S. efforts to discourage Russian-backed disinformation campaigns haven't succeeded in ending them. And U.S. retaliation for the massive SolarWinds breach last winter hasn't deterred the group behind it from continuing attacks more recently.

  • It may prove similarly tough to shut down a criminal software industry that's also making its perpetrators millionaires.

Reports: Trump DOJ subpoenaed Apple for records of WH counsel Don McGahn

Apple told former Trump administration White House counsel Don McGahn last month that the Department of Justice subpoenaed information about accounts of his in 2018, the New York Times first reported Sunday.

Why it matters: Although it's unclear why the DOJ took the action, such a move against a senior lawyer representing the presidency is highly unusual.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told CNN Sunday that former Attorneys General William Barr and Jeff Sessions should testify before Congress on reports that the Trump-era Department of Justice seized Democrats' and journalists' data records.

Driving the news: DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced Friday an internal investigation into the matter, and Pelosi expressed disbelief to CNN's Dana Brash at assertions that neither Barr nor Sessions knew of probes into lawmakers.

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The CEO of the world's largest container-shipping company cautions that international firms have to be careful of taking political stances.

  • What they're saying: "We cannot run a global business if we start to have views on politics in every single country that we are in," Maersk CEO Søren Skou tells "Axios on HBO."
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U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Suzanne Clark told me on "Axios on HBO" that the business group was right to endorse vulnerable House Democrats last year, despite the flak that resulted from Republicans.

  • Clark, who took over the top job in March, said those House Democrats "had really helped push business's number one priority, which was the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, over the finish line."
  • "All of the Republicans that we work with on tax, on regulation — those people are really, really important to us," she added: "So we have to be willing to have a different coalition on every issue."
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Nuclear watchdog: “Essential” to have deal with Iran

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency tells "Axios on HBO" that it's "essential" to have a nuclear deal with Iran because otherwise "we are flying blind."

Driving the news: Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi sat down with "Axios on HBO" at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, ahead of Iran's June 18 presidential election and a June 24 extension on negotiations seeking to restore curtailed surveillance of Iranian nuclear sites and salvage the 2015 deal.

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U.N. ambassador Thomas-Greenfield sees tough Putin summit

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told me on "Axios on HBO" that President Biden will be candid, frank — and tough — during this week's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • "The president will make clear to the Russians that they cannot harbor cyber terrorists and criminals in their country and not be held accountable for it," she added. "And they need to take the responsibility for dealing with this issue."
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Dems’ go-it-alone approach faces big hurdles as left’s frustrations spill over

If a bipartisan group of lawmakers fails to strike a deal on the infrastructure proposal it's negotiating with the White House, ramming through a package using the partisan reconciliation process isn't a guaranteed solution.

Why it matters: Getting 51 Democratic votes would be a long, uphill battle. And moderates within the party are balking at the cost of President Biden's spending — even as progressives openly lament that the "transformational" change they seek is slipping out of reach.

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America's U.N. ambassador: "I will always push for women to be part of negotiation teams"

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has argued over her 39-year diplomatic career that educating and empowering women and girls is an investment in peace and security for their nations.

  • "I will always push for women to be part of negotiation teams," she told me in the State Department Treaty Room, during an interview for "Axios on HBO."
  • "I notice ... when they're not in the room. ... Sometimes I'm the only one," she added with a laugh. "And I will call it out."
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