The State Department’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program provides up to $10 million for the “identification or location of any person who, while acting under the direction or control of a foreign government, participates in malicious cyber activities against the US infrastructure. ”
This is not the first time the secretary of state has launched an initiative like this. In fact, the FRY program has been in place since 1984. Since then, the government has paid more than $150 million to more than 100 people who “provided actionable information that put terrorists behind bars or prevented acts of international terrorism around the world ”.
The program addresses a number of other important national security issues in addition to ransomware, including terrorist financing, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and North Korea.
The “malicious cyber activities” mentioned above are specifically defined as ransomware, intentional unauthorized access to a protected computer, and intentionally caused damage to a protected computer.
“Within our program, there’s enormous enthusiasm because we’re really extrapolating every chance we have to try to reach audiences, sources, people who might have information that helps improve our national security,” a State Department official told CNN.
The RJF program pays rewards via money transfer or even delivering suitcases full of cash.
But, according to CNN, the State Department is now open to paying informants with cryptocurrencies.
The RJF program and cryptocurrency
According to CNN, the RJF program is streamlining its payment mechanisms to include cryptocurrency payments.
“Finding people where they are and reaching them with the technology they’re most comfortable with, I think, is the name of the game for Rewards for Justice,” a State Department official told CNN.
According to Erez Liebermann, a former Justice Department cybercrime prosecutor, this is no surprise. “It’s inconceivable that the government hasn’t used cryptocurrency to pay insiders or secret sources,” he told CNN.
That, in turn, is good news for cryptocurrency advocates. Neeraj Agrawal of Coin Center’s cryptoactive research center told CNN, “We have long suspected that security agencies were taking advantage of the properties of cryptocurrencies. It’s great to see that management recognizes the role cryptocurrencies can play in promoting activism. ”
That may well be true, but the Biden administration is also aware of the role cryptocurrencies can play in ransomware – one of the government’s most prioritized national security risks.
Last month, the US government established a new task force focused on tracking cryptocurrency payments made in cyber attacks.
United States vs Ransomware
Ransomware – and the broader threat of cyber warfare – was brought into focus for the Biden government.
Earlier this summer, the United States was hit by two major ransomware attacks – the Colonial Pipeline and the JBS ransomware attacks, respectively.
In May, the DarkSide ransomware group stole more than $90 million from the US pipeline company Colonial Pipeline. A month later, JBS factories that process about a fifth of America’s meat production were hit by ransomware hackers. The company ended up paying $11 million to hackers after the attack.
After these high-profile ransomware episodes, the Department of Justice elevated ransomware to a priority level similar to terrorism.