As President Joe Biden and his top cybersecurity minds convened in the Situation Room Wednesday, their agenda was all about somehow outsmarting cybercriminal minds — and their powerful protector — in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Most assumed their top problem was the week’s new cyber ransomware holdup by Russia-based criminals of 1,500 Western companies that ran supermarkets, pharmacies and even railroads in the United States, Europe and Asia. But no. The same Russia-based cybercriminals, who are called REvil (a cyber shorthand for “ransom evil”) had just brazenly struck again, that very day. They had just targeted and posted on their website — which has an in-your-face name of “The Happy Blog” — documents from a Florida contractor with the high-tech name of HX5 that provides technology for space launches and weaponry to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and NASA. Not to shut them all down; just to show they could.
And you can be sure that none of the cyber masterminds in the Situation Room — not even their commander in chief (who may have been the only one at the table old enough to remember) — were thinking about the one pre-Computer Age crime-fighting solution to their problem. It was, after all, something their White House predecessors’ generations ago were taught by America’s first famous crime-fighter: the otherwise un-admirable J. Edgar Hoover.
In 1934, the new FBI’s first director saw that Chicago’s crime commission got a world of attention by simply labeling Al Capone “a public enemy.” Hoover, never one to be outdone in self-promotion, created a list of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives — and called bank robber John Dillinger “Public Enemy No. 1.” Suddenly America was fixated on this Public Enemy. Dillinger was spotted, shot and killed. His successors (“Baby Face” Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Machine Gun” Kelly and of course Bonnie and Clyde) came to similar fates. Soon Americans were gathering around their parlor radios, listening to a new CBS Radio top-rated show: “The FBI in Peace and War.”
Today our cyber world is both at peace and at war. U.S. intelligence has concluded that Putin ordered the cyber sabotage attacks on America’s democracy to help elect and unsuccessfully attempt to reelect Donald Trump, whom he somehow could always control. Today many experts inside and outside U.S. intelligence believe Putin can also control Russia’s underworld cybercriminals — if he ultimately wants to. But how to make that happen?
In their Geneva summit, Biden firmly warned Putin that there were 16 cyber targets that could not be touched without major retaliation — and gave Russia’s president that red-line list. That got Putin’s attention. The two presidents agreed to set up subsequent meetings of top cyber officials who would discuss ways of combating the cybercriminals. Biden is also reportedly working with U.S. allies around the world to achieve a unified battle-plan on defeating Russian and other cybercriminal ransom attacks.
Here’s where the Biden Situation Room brain trust ought to rethink and recalibrate Hoover’s Public Enemy No. 1. All who are farsighted can clearly see that ahead of us — and rushing toward us — is a fate we cannot allow to happen: a potential cybercriminal paralysis. It can take many forms; they range from dreadful to worse. Automakers are planning for an all-electric future. General Motors’ goal is to end production of gas and diesel cars by 2035. A world where cybercriminals can shut down a nation’s electrical grid — bringing a region or even a nation to a standstill must be prevented.
Coincidentally, shortly after that Situation Room national security cyber briefing, one of those U.S. and Russian cyber expert meetings was conducted. It is unclear if any progress was achieved. Especially, it is unclear whether enough progress will ever be achieved without an additional incentive. So here is one:
Putin must understand that from this point on, the cybercrimes must stop. Yet he must also understand that Putin and Russia can be a welcome part of the global solution. And that good relations can happen, if that happens.
But Putin must also be told, firmly but privately, that — as a last resort — a world of major allies are prepared to spotlight him and Russia as THE problem. He must be told that the United States. Britain, the European Union, Japan, Australia and more are prepared to declare Putin’s Russia Global Cyber-Enemy No. 1 — and make it stick.
Putin will get it: Russia’s global trade and global capital sources will suddenly be shutting down. But he must also know that dire option need not be. Our world will be better with Putin’s Russia as a major partner in our solution to end cybercrime.
Our world will be better off with no person, and no nation, being Global Enemy No. 1.