Two weeks ago Friday, May 7, a cybercriminal group called “DarkSide” launched a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline Co. The pipeline stretches 5,500 miles across the Southeast, providing millions of barrels of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to the eastern US. The pipeline was forced to shut down, causing widespread gasoline shortage across the Southeast and east coast.
How in the world did “cyberware criminals”, probably based in Russia or eastern Europe, with a name that sounds like an evil corporation from a James Bond movie, shut down a massive physical infrastructure in the US? And what does ransomware mean anyway?
CNBC reports, “Ransomware attacks involve malware that encrypts files on a device or network that results in the system becoming inoperable.” Now, “malware” just refers to software (computer programs) that are meant to cause harm. And as is true of most large-scale operations like this pipeline, pretty much everything is run through computers. So when DarkSide infiltrated their network, they locked Colonial Pipeline out of their systems, and held that data and access hostage for money.
Though Colonial still has not shared details about the attack, or how they were infiltrated, the company may have shut down the pipeline to prevent the malware from infiltrating the industrial control systems.
Several sources have now confirmed that Colonial paid the cybercriminals the ransom of roughly $5 million (in Bitcoin) to get the digital “key” to access their systems. The company and White House officials have not publicly confirmed the payment. Last Wednesday, Colonial was able to start the pipeline running again, though full operation did not begin immediately and the shortages lasted for days longer.
Most of the readers are probably familiar with the gas shortages and increased prices that resulted from the shutdown. As of last Sunday, more than one full week after the attack, Washington D.C. was still the worst affected, with 90% of its pumps running dry. Much of the eastern US is still recovering, though officials are optimistic that things will return to normal this week.
Daniel and cultural savviness in a digital age
At the Denison Forum, we are committed to providing information that keeps Christians in solid, good knowledge about the culture and the times. Keeping up with the digital age is difficult, but it is important for us as believers.
Daniel, living in exile from his people, was hand-selected as a young man for his competency, attractiveness, knowledge, wisdom, and learning to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He was then taught the customs, practices, way of life, and literature of the Babylonians.
Despite this adaptation to the culture, he stood firm with his counter-culture convictions throughout his life, even upon fear of death. He was an intelligent, faithful man who reflected savviness in his context (Daniel 1:3‒4). Daniel provides a model for believers to live in a non-Christian culture. The digital age is our context. Following his example, let’s dig into more details about the cyber attack.
Experts have warned that companies and the US government are failing to meet the increasing threat of criminal groups like DarkSide. As of April, the NYT reports that 26 government agencies have been hacked in 2021 alone. As an example, Washington D.C.’s police department was hacked last month, and when they didn’t pay ransom for the data, the cybercriminals dumped dangerously sensitive information onto the web.
Experts say that cyber gangs are becoming bolder in their attacks on critical infrastructure because the ransom will more likely be paid. DarkSide was successful: experts identified that they had around $17.5 million in their Bitcoin wallet.
Interestingly, DarkSide wanted to adopt a Robin Hood-esque persona, claiming to have donated some of their profits to charities, and supposedly even researching the targeted companies to make sure they can reasonably afford their ransom. They even submitted something of an apology about the pipeline on their website last week, saying that they wanted to make money, not damage society.
This vague apology, of course, did not deter President Biden from announcing that the US would enact countermeasures against the underground group. Soon after this cryptic announcement, the hackers publicly posted that they would disband due to “pressure” from the US, but naturally, all of the hackers involved will probably just resurface with different aliases.
These international, secretive organizations and ransoms of millions of dollars seem lofty and untouchable. Are our livelihoods at risk from such massive cyber attacks? The evidence is that yes, these threats are real. This past week should act as a wake-up call for the US government and companies that support critical infrastructure.
Controlling what we can with kindness, not fear
These threats are critical to address, both in the private sector with better security and from the US government. Of course, each of us only has a certain circle of influence. If you’re reading this, you probably won’t be able to move the tides of cybersecurity for the US government. The frightening part of these issues is that, though they feel beyond our control, they still affect our lives, as in the case of the gas shortage.
Despite this, there is hope. As believers, we know that God is always in control (Psalm 2). Because of this, the biblical response to these issues is to act with wisdom, not fear or panic. Proverbs 1:33 says, “But whoever listens to [lady wisdom] will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”
One application of wisdom is to use street smarts and preparedness. If you have a business with more than a handful of employees, it would be wise to research these matters further. Around half of all cyber-attacks are actually against small businesses, but essentially all are preventable with good security practices. That is certainly one application.
Returning to the gas shortage from last week, what was in everyone’s control was how they responded to the crisis. There is nothing wrong with filling up if you need gas during a shortage. But there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to approach it. Panic buying fuel and hoarding made the problem worse. Many were acting from a place of unreasonable fear to the point of even filling up plastic bags with gasoline.
The truth is, these kinds of actions stem from misinformation and fear. As believers, we must be prudent and remember our hope is always and ultimately in Christ. Paul says in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Crises are not an excuse to act selfishly, they are an opportunity to reflect Christ’s sacrificial love.
A local news site in Charlotte reported on a good samaritan who gave gas to a stranger because she was completely stranded at a gas station. The mother and her two sons had waited in line for gas, and just barely missed the last of it. Another nearby woman heard their plight, drove back to her own house, and returned with extra gas she had. The mother was in tears from gratitude.
We ought to see times of crisis as opportunities to reflect Jesus’ love and kindness, not be ruled by fear. Are you acting shrewdly in the digital world?
Are you responding to crises with selflessness, responsibility, and hope, or with fear?