MOM AND POP WHITMAN: Time to fight against ransomware

Mom and Pop Whitman

Pop: Get those strawberries ready, Mom, here’s your vanilla loaf cake! We know how you and Eb love strawberries. You get the cream; I’ll fetch the dishes. 

A cyberhack on Colonial Pipeline last month led to gas shortages, and much consternation. The company then paid a ransom of 75 bitcoin, then valued at $4.4 million. Colonial Pipeline transports 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast. An attack on JBS SA, the world’s largest meat processing company, threatened to disrupt food supplies. The company paid $11 million to the hackers. 

Ransomware has become a multi-billion dollar business, and the average payment was more than $310,000 last year. There is great concern that our electrical grid system could be hacked and leave the country without power for months. In fact, there is concern that too many companies are being hacked, and hackers can just about hold us hostage as a functioning country. 

Farnsworth, Mr. Dolan, is our expert on computers, and is very, very concerned. Mrs. Dolan (she loves food) clipped the article: “The world’s food supply has never been more vulnerable” by Amanda Little, a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after COVID-19 as well as the book “The Fate of Food: What we’ll eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.” Mr. Dolan wasn’t positive, but he thought the article was by the Associated Press.  

Amanda Little is very concerned about cyberattacks on our food processors that could leave many people starving and unable to purchase the necessary foods to keep alive. Consolidation has made the U.S. meat industry, and the global protein supply, profoundly and unacceptably vulnerable. And it will become more susceptible in the years ahead as public health threats and potential cyberattacks loom large, and natural disasters occur. Drought, heat, flooding, wildfires, insects, super-storms and weather volatility are raising pressure on farms and ranches. The cost-saving benefits of agricultural consolidation are increasingly outweighed by the risks of disruption. 

Mom: The JBS SA hacking is the latest in a series of events that have crippled large-scale meat producers. The March 2019 fire in Holcomb, Kansas, destroyed a Tyson Foods plant that processed about 5% of U.S. beef. In April 2020, COVID-19 shut down major hog and chicken processing plants nationwide. That included a Smithfield Foods plant processing more than 15% of all pork in the U.S. The JBS SA attack sabotaged more than a fifth of all beef processing in a matter of minutes. 

Food industry experts have long been clamoring for systemic “resilience.” U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (his second tour as agricultural secretary) says that we’re better off having multiple plants in multiple locations, smaller facilities to produce enough product. It may mean a little less profit, but you’ll always have sufficient operation capacity. 

Industry Goliaths have accumulated a powerful grip on global agriculture. In the U.S. alone, four processing companies slaughter more than 80% of the beef, four meatpacking companies process roughly two-thirds of the nation’s hogs, and five companies control about 60% of the broiler chicken market. Stifled competition has led to widespread price-fixing and corruption. 

Biden and Congress must strengthen antitrust laws to decentralize U.S. meat production. There is an urgent need to incentivize and support smaller and more diversified meat processors and producers. Cyberhacking is not going to stop abruptly. It is a constant threat to every part of our needs as a society. 

Ransomware was more of an economic nuisance for years, but attacks launched by foreign cybergangs out of reach of U.S. law enforcement have proliferated in scale over the past year to thrust the problem on the front pages. The DOJ and the FBI have recovered $2.3 million worth of the $4.4 million paid by the Colonial Pipeline. It is most likely that many resources were involved, and companies should not expect the DOJ and FBI to be able to do the same for all events. They do not have the capability. 

Pop: Companies have been paying the ransoms, even though the FBI has stated that payment will encourage more hacking. Many companies simply pay the ransom and write it off with the IRS. Whether companies will be able to write off ransom payments in the future is an area under discussion at the moment. You can be certain, however, that the companies pass the cost down to the consumer. 

The article, “Department of Justice recovers more than half ransom paid by Colonial Pipeline” by Grant Gross in the June 15 “Washington Examiner” magazine offers a glimmer of hope that the U.S. government is finally going on offense. Lisa Monaco, the DOJ’s deputy attorney general, has stated that ransomware is a national and economic security threat to the U.S., and law enforcement agencies will use “all the tools at our disposal” to disrupt ransomware networks. We will spare no effort in response. 

Hallelujah! 

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