During a virtual panel with Bloomberg on Tuesday, the FBI's assistant director of Cyber Division Bryan Vorndran said that "cryptocurrency is the primary currency, the primary vehicle, to facilitate extortion payments."
Vorndran added that, despite "some opportunities" offered by blockchain technology, "the ability to pay crypto, write it immediately into a tumbler, whether through an extortion or theft payment, is a huge, huge challenge for us." A tumbler is a piece of technology that obfuscates the crypto source, which can be used to clean up any illicit funds. Sometimes they are also called "mixers".
Tumblers are also often used to hide the source of bitcoin in ransomware cases, during which cyber attackers encrypt an entity's computer systems, freezing the owners' ability to access their data. In exchange for the bitcoin payment, the attackers unlock the systems.
And as Vorndran mentioned, keeping track of these funds is difficult as they usually never enter the traditional financial sector. One of the main strengths of bitcoin is that it also allows anyone in the world to instantly send any amount of money at any time, making it a convenient alternative to cash in the digital age.
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In recent months, the US government has prioritized monitoring illicit crypto activities. Following the ransomware attacks on critical pieces of American infrastructure last year, the Department of Justice (DoJ) has elevated ransomware to the same level of priority as terrorism.
The DoJ update came shortly after the attacks on the Colonial Pipeline, an oil pipeline serving the southeastern states, and the US branch of meat processing giant JBS. The first attack caused a gasoline shortage in the region, earning major headlines and raising national attention to this type of cyber attack.
The ransomware attacks grossed about $ 602 million in 2021, according to estimates by blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis. Conti, a Russian-based hacking group, extorted more than $ 180 million from its victims. While ransomware attacks are clearly on the intelligence community’s radar, Vorndran’s comments suggest that hacker groups are far from worried.