National Roundup

US takes new aim at ransomware after costly year for attacks

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is taking new aim at ransomware after a year that officials say was the costliest on record for the crippling cyberattacks.

Formation of a task force of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors is an acknowledgment of the growing threat posed by ransomware attacks, in which hackers lock up computer data and demand ransom payments in order to give it back. The force is part of a broader government effort to combat cyberattacks that target vital infrastructure, including a 100-day Biden administration initiative announced Tuesday to bolster the digital security of the nation’s electricity supply.

Ransomware attacks have impeded hospital operations, led to the temporary closure of school classes and caused other chaos. Last year was the worst to date in terms of the economic toll, with ransom demands to victims averaging over $100,000 and in some cases totaling tens of millions of dollars, according to the Justice Department.

“Ransomware can have devastating human and financial consequences,” John Carlin, the acting deputy attorney general, wrote in a staff memo dated Tuesday and provided Wednesday by the Justice Department. “When criminals target critical infrastructure such as hospitals, utilities, and municipal networks, their activity jeopardizes the safety and health of Americans.”

Lisa Monaco was confirmed Tuesday evening as the department’s new deputy attorney general.

The Justice Department has brought indictments related to ransomware attacks, including a 2018 case against two Iranian nationals whose many victims included the cities of Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey, and resulted in losses of $30 million. Federal prosecutors have also accused North Korean computer programmers  of creating a global ransomware campaign dubbed WannaCry 2.0.

But the threat has grown more sophisticated.

As it imposed sanctions on Russia last week for election interference and the hacking of federal agencies, the Treasury Department alleged that Russian intelligence had enabled ransomware attacks by cultivating and co-opting criminal hackers and giving them safe harbor.

Against that backdrop, the task force is aimed at enhancing the department’s ability to disrupt ransomware attacks and prosecute the hackers responsible for them, including through more training and resources and a greater focus on intelligence. Another purpose is to improve partnerships with the private sector, including by encouraging victim companies to come forward and report attacks, and with other federal and international agencies.

The task force will include representatives from the Justice Department’s criminal and national security divisions, among others.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report creation of the task force.

Boulder shooting suspect charged with using large magazine

DENVER (AP) — Local prosecutors in Colorado on Wednesday filed over 40 more felony charges against a man charged with killing 10 people at a Boulder supermarket last month, including for allegedly using a large capacity magazine banned by state lawmakers in response to recent mass shootings.

The court document outlining the new charges lists 19 new victims — including 11 law enforcement officers — that Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, is accused of trying to kill during the attack. Some victims have more than one count of attempted first-degree murder associated with them, specifying two different theories for how Alissa allegedly tried to kill them, either intentionally or through “extreme indifference” to human life.

In 2013, Colorado lawmakers banned the sale of ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds in response to mass shootings the year before at a suburban Denver movie theater and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Despite that, an investigation by KUSA-TV  found that some gun shops have been skirting the law by selling the disassembled parts of high capacity magazines that buyers can put together themselves.

Investigators have said Alissa legally purchased the Ruger AR-556 pistol, which resembles an AR-15 rifle with a slightly shorter stock. He is accused of using it in the shooting six days after passing a background check.

Alissa’s defense has asked for time to evaluate what one of his lawyers called his “mental illness” but has not offered any details about the condition. He has not been asked to enter a plea yet and the public defenders who represent him are barred from talking to the media about the case under office policy.

Woman pleads guilty to hate crimes for running down children

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A Des Moines woman has pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes for intentionally driving her SUV into two children in 2019 because she said she thought one was Mexican and the other was a member of the Islamic State group.

Nicole Poole Franklin, 43, entered the pleas Wednesday in a Des Moines federal court to two counts of violating the U.S. Hate Crime Act for trying to kill the children in separate attacks because of their races. She pleaded guilty Monday to two state counts of attempted murder in the same Dec. 9, 2019, attacks, the Des Moines Register reported.

Prosecutors said Franklin intentionally jumped a curb in Des Moines that afternoon and struck a Black 12-year-old boy, injuring one of his legs. During her hearing Wednesday, Poole said she thought the boy was of Middle Eastern descent and was a member of IS.

Minutes later, Franklin ran down a 14-year-old Latina girl on a sidewalk, leaving her with injuries for which she was hospitalized for two days. Police said Franklin told them she hit the girl because “she is Mexican.” About an hour later, Franklin was arrested at a local gas station, where officers say she had thrown items at a clerk while yelling racial slurs at him and other customers.

Franklin has said she is schizophrenic and has post-traumatic stress disorder. Last year, a judge ruled that she wasn’t mentally competent to stand trial, but she was later restored to mental competency and ordered to face trial.

The federal counts carry a possible life prison sentence, but prosecutors recommended that Franklin be sentenced to 27 years behind bars and that her federal sentence be served at the same time as her state sentence. On the state counts, Franklin faces up to 25 years on each attempted murder count. It wasn’t clear if other state counts, including hate crimes, would be dropped as part as her guilty plea in state court, the Register reported.