FBI director discusses tactics to ‘burn down’ cyber criminals’ infrastructure at Boston College conference

FBI director discusses tactics to 'burn down' cyber criminals' infrastructure at Boston College conference

NEWTON, Mass. — The Director for the Federal Bureau of Investigation was the keynote speaker at a cybersecurity conference at Boston College on Wednesday.

Christopher Wray spoke about how the agency has been working to combat increasing cyber threats, citing how cyber capabilities have become a much more powerful weapon for dangerous people and nations.

To thwart increasingly dangerous cyber criminals, law enforcement agents are working to “burn down their infrastructure” and take out the tools that allow them to carry out their devastating attacks, Wray said.

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He says hackers haven’t necessarily gotten more sophisticated, but rather they’re able to rent more advanced malware from the dark web.

“It can give a ring of unsophisticated criminals the tools that paralyze entire hospitals, police departments and businesses with ransomware,” said Wray.

"The reality is we are long past the days where we can fight this threat just one by one, one bad guy at a time ... one victim company at a time. We've got to figure out ways to tackle the cyber threat as a whole," Wray told the crowd of FBI agents, university officials and others on the Chestnut Hill campus.

Alluding to his favorite movie, Caddyshack, Wray illustrated his point on the persistence in going after cyber criminals and what tools they’re using to conduct their attacks.

“Most of you would recognize, I hope, Carl the Groundskeeper taking on the gopher and I know I’m dating myself a bit, but just to be clear we’re not going after cyber criminals with plastic explosives, but we are working to get to the root of the operation take down their ability to act," said Wray.

The U.S. saw a nearly 40 percent increase in ransomware attacks between 2018 and 2019, said Joseph Bonavolonta, the head of the FBI's office in Boston. There was an even more dramatic uptick in such attacks in just the four states -- Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire -- that the Boston office covers, he said.

“The threat of ransomware is continuing to grow and evolve and we are seeing a shift to more sophisticated, smaller-scale ransomware campaigns, which maximizes the impact on the victims to extort higher ransoms,” Bonavolonta told the conference.

Foreign actors, especially those from China, are also using cyber attacks to steal research from the defense contractors and other companies to "avoid the hard slog of innovation," Wray said, adding that the thieves are then turning around and using that information to compete against the very companies they ripped off.

"In effect, they are cheating twice over," Wray said.

Wray stressed the importance of indicting cyber criminals, even when they are outside the grasp of U.S. law enforcement in places like Russia, China or Iran, saying such criminals must be held accountable "no matter where they are."

Those countries "aren't the tourism destinations they used to be and one day they will slip up and when they do, we are there. Because the FBI has a broad reach and an even broader memory," Wray said.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers was among other speakers expected at the conference, which was organized by the FBI and the Masters in Cybersecurity Policy and Governance Program at Boston College’s Woods College of Advancing Studies.

Wray also made a recruitment pitch since there were a number of college students in the audience. According to Wray, in 2019 the bureau had 36,000 Americans apply for agent positions, three times more than the year before.

The Associated Press contributed to this report