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The U.S. State Department is offering dark web informants cryptocurrency bounties in exchange for information on hackers seen as threats to the country, per CNN.
The State Department’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program offers up to $10 million for the “identification or location of any person who, while acting at the direction or under the control of a foreign government, participates in malicious cyber activities against U.S. critical infrastructure.”
This isn’t the first time the state department has launched an initiative like this. In fact, the RFJ program has been in place since 1984. Since then, the government has paid over $150 million to over 100 people who “provided actionable information that put terrorists behind bars or prevented acts of international terrorism worldwide.”
The program addresses several other key national security issues beyond ransomware, including terrorism financing, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and North Korea.
The “malicious cyber activities” mentioned above are defined specifically as ransomware, intentional unauthorized access to a protected computer, and intentionally causing damage to a protected computer.
“Within our program there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm because we’re really pushing the envelope every chance we get to try and reach audiences, sources, people who may have information that helps improve our national security,” a State Department official told CNN.
The RJF program has paid out rewards via money transfers or even by 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 pivoting its payment mechanisms to include cryptocurrency payments.
“Finding people where they are and reaching them with the technology on which they are most comfortable, 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 cybercrimes prosecutor, this comes as no surprise. “It is inconceivable that the government has not used cryptocurrency to pay undercover informants or sources,” he told CNN.
This, in turn, is welcome news for cryptocurrency advocates. Neeraj Agrawal of crypto think tank Coin Center told CNN “We have long suspected that law enforcement agencies were taking advantage of the properties of cryptocurrencies. It is great to see the administration recognizes the role that cryptocurrencies can play in promoting activism.”
That may well be true, but the Biden administration is also acutely aware of the role cryptocurrencies can play in ransomware—one of the government’s most prioritized national security risks.
Last month, the U.S. government established a new task force whose focus was on tracing cryptocurrency payments made in cyberattacks.
The United States vs ransomware
Ransomware—and the broader threat of cyber warfare—has been brought into sharp focus for the Biden administration.
Earlier this summer, the United States was rocked by two major ransomware attacks—the Colonial Pipeline and JBS ransomware attacks respectively.
In May, the ransomware group DarkSide stole over $90 million from the American gasoline pipeline firm Colonial Pipeline. One month later, JBS plants that process about one-fifth of America’s meat produce were hit by ransomware hackers. The company eventually paid $11 million to the hackers after the attack.
Following these high-profile ransomware episodes, the Department of Justice elevated ransomware to a priority level similar to terrorism.