U.S. Threatens Legal Action Against Government Contractors Who Hide Computer System Hacks

The Justice Department could take legal action against government contractors and other companies that receive federal grants if they hide breaches of their cybersystems, the department's second-highest official said, according to the Associated Press.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Wednesday the department is prepared to sue under the False Claims Act. That statute allows the department to take action against contractors who misuse federal funding by not revealing hacks or have inadequate cybersecurity standards.

The Justice Department will also protect whistleblowers who come forward to report such problems, the AP said.

"For too long, companies have chosen silence under the mistaken belief that it's less risky to hide a breach than to bring it forward and to report it. Well, that changes today," Monaco said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Lisa Monaco
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Wednesday the Justice Department is prepared to take legal action against government contractors who hide data breaches. Above, Monaco testifies on renewing and strengthening the Violence Against Women Act during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The department's action, unveiled at the Aspen Cyber Summit, is part of a broader Biden administrative effort to incentivize contractors and private companies to share information with the government about breaches and to bolster their own cybersecurity defenses. Officials have repeatedly spoken of the need for better private sector engagement as the government confronts ransomware attacks that in the last year have targeted critical infrastructure and major corporations, including a major fuel pipeline.

The measure underscores the extent to which the government views cyberattacks as harmful not just to an individual company but also to the American public in general, especially given recent attacks against a major fuel pipeline and meat processor.

"Where those who are entrusted with government dollars, who are entrusted to work on sensitive government systems fail to follow required cybersecurity standards, we're going to go after that behavior and extract very hefty fines," Monaco said.

Monaco also announced the creation of a new cryptocurrency enforcement team within the department, drawing from experts in cybersecurity and money laundering, aimed at destabilizing the financial ecosystem that drives ransomware attacks and the criminal hacking gangs that carry them out.

The action follows Treasury Department sanctions last month against a Russia-based virtual currency brokerage that officials say helped at least eight ransomware gangs launder virtual currency.

Monaco's appearance came hours after the publication of a CNBC opinion piece in which she urged Congress to pass legislation creating a national standard for the reporting of significant cyber incidents so that information about digital attacks can be quickly disseminated across the federal government.

Most breaches, she wrote, are not reported to law enforcement, hindering investigations.

"The current gap in reporting hinders the government's ability to combat not just the ransomware threat, but all cybercriminal activity," Monaco wrote. "It means we go at it alone, without key insights from our partners in the private sector, and it needs to change, today."

Separately, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday that new regulations are coming for railroads and transit entities.

Mayorkas said the Transportation Security Administration this year will issue a security directive that will require railroads and transit entities to comply with new regulations similar to ones issued in May for pipeline operators following a hack that disrupted gas supplies in several states.

What the secretary called "higher risk" railroads and transit entities will be required cybersecurity point person, report incidents to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and develop a contingency and recovery plan in case of malicious cyberactivity.

Those deemed "low risk" will be subjected to guidance that "encourages" than to take those measures but don't require it, Mayorkas said in remarks to the Billington Cybersecurity Summit.

He did not specify which railroads or transit entities were in either category.

Deputy Attorney General
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco Monaco speaks with reporters during a September 30 news conference. Alex Brandon/AP Photo