Colonial Pipeline Hackers: Barbary Pirates of 2021
A lesson on ransomware from the founding fathers.
VSolonial Pipeline CEO Joseph Blount recently admitted that Colonial paid a ransom of $ 4.4 million to the criminal hackers who pushed the company to shut down the country’s largest fuel carrier. A news source reported that the provided decryption tool was not effective in restoring operations. Colonial, however, managed to recover by relying on backup systems.
In the aftermath of the colonial cyberattack, the Biden administration said it was reviewing “the government’s approach to ransomware and ransom players in general.” Assuming that paying ransoms encourages more attacks, the FBI has a long-standing policy against paying ransoms.
This has been good policy and has been since the early days of the United States. The administration would do well to heed the wisdom of the Founding Fathers who found themselves in the ransomware crisis of their day – the Barbary hacker attacks.
From the Crusades until the early 19th century, Barbary pirates dominated nautical activity around North Africa. They captured ships, stole cargo, and enslaved crews. Between 1530 and 1780, around 1 million Europeans were enslaved in North Africa. In his bestseller Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, renowned historian and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote that from the 12th century to the early 19th century, barbaric piracy was Europe’s “nightmare”.
Piracy in the early centuries was primarily motivated by religion – Al-jihad fi’l-bahr, or holy war at sea. However, when Moroccans gained independence from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century, piracy became a tool of foreign and trade policy. In many cases, the pirates received private commissions from the ruling pashas.
Rather than going to war, most of Europe appeased the Barbary states by paying them “homage” – the colonial equivalent of “ransomware”. According to Oren, this was a “cold calculation that the tribute was cheaper than the cost of the constant defense of vital Mediterranean trade routes”.
In the early days of colonial commerce, New World merchants found prosperity in the growing trade centers of the Mediterranean. For most of the 18th century, pirate attacks on American ships were relatively rare, as these ships enjoyed the protection of the powerful British Navy. In the mid-1770s, 20 percent of colonial exports went to Mediterranean ports.
After 1776, Great Britain withdrew protection from American ships. Without a true navy to defend themselves, American ships were powerless on the high seas. Barbary pirates could attack American ships without fear of retaliation.
After the war, the new nation tried to protect itself through diplomacy. He tried to negotiate protection under the aegis of France, but France refused.
Between October and December 1784, with the humiliating capture of three ships (notably the Betsy by Moroccan pirates), American shipments to the Mediterranean were virtually interrupted. America’s economic survival was in grave danger.
In response, Congress ordered US Ambassadors Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate a peace deal with Morocco, which was the first country to recognize US independence. In exchange for a “gift” of $ 20,000, Jefferson and Franklin secured the release of the Betsy and a peace treaty with Morocco.
Jefferson was skeptical of the validity of a treaty with one of the Barbary states unless America had the power to enforce it. Jefferson was right. Almost immediately after the BetsyFreed at the end of 1786, he was captured again, this time by Tunisian pirates.
Jefferson, who in the first years after independence opposed the creation of a navy, now became convinced that the only way to end the terror of the Barbary pirates was to defeat them. While John Adams still opposed the idea, George Washington shared Jefferson’s point of view. Washington has described the payment of bounties by most countries to hackers as “the greatest shame for them”.
During the debate at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, James Madison said: “Weakness will bring insults. . . . The best way to avoid danger is to be able to take it. After the adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, the barbaric challenge and the need to take it up with force played a big role in the ratification. In several essays in Federalist papersHamilton argued that a commercial nation needed a navy and that without a navy America would ultimately be “forced to redeem itself from the terrors of a conflagration, yielding to the atrocities of the daring and sudden invaders” (Federalist No. 41).
After the ratification of the Constitution on March 4, 1789, the nation, still indebted by the war of independence, remained ambivalent about the creation of a navy. However, news of a series of Algerian attacks beginning in 1793 changed things.
In September 1793, Algerian pirates attacked the Polly, an American ship, stole the cargo, stripped the crews of their clothing and enslaved them. Over the following months, the Algerians captured eleven other ships. The news of these captures and the often inhumane treatment of Americans prompted Congress to act. On January 2, 1794, a divided House of Representatives, by 46 votes to 44, decided that “a naval force adequate for the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerian corsairs, must be provided”. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Act to provide naval armament this made it possible to finance the construction of six frigates. President Washington signed the bill in March; the US Navy was born.
The actual construction of the navy was slow; the first three frigates were not seaworthy until 1799. In 1796, the United States entered into an expensive and humiliating peace treaty with Algiers, which would cost American taxpayers $ 642,000 in bribes and in tribute payments – about one-fifteenth of all federal payments that year – to securing the release of 107 US hostages. By 1800, the United States had paid nearly $ 2 million – one-fifth of its annual revenue – to the Barbary States.
The United States did not begin to demonstrate its naval power until Jefferson’s presidency in 1801. In response to an attack on the American merchant ship by Tripoli, Jefferson sent three frigates and a schooner to the Mediterranean. The United States decisively defeated the Tripolitan Navy and established a continued presence in the Mediterranean. Over the next four years, the first Barbary Wars took place; in the end, the United States achieved its two main objectives: the release of captives and the establishment of treaties (with minimal tribute) with Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.
During the War of 1812, most of the US Navy was redeployed from the Mediterranean. The Barbary States took advantage of the vacuum and resumed their attacks on American ships. In 1815, a week after the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war with Great Britain, at the request of President Madison, Congress declared war on Algiers.
On May 15, 1815, Captain Steven Decatur led a powerful group of ten ships to Algiers. Within weeks, Decatur had beaten Algiers so convincingly that he was able to dictate conditions of unprecedented surrender to the Algerians; they would stop receiving the homage of the United States, they would pay $ 10,000 in damages, and they would release all American captives unconditionally. Decatur then sailed to Tunis Tripoli and Morocco, where it made similar requests and received similar conditions. The Second Barbary War opened free trade in the Mediterranean, not only for the United States, but also for Europe. Barely 50 years after American independence, the United States was still isolated but able to defend its trade. Freed from piracy, American commerce flourished.
America today faces the modern equivalent of the Barbary pirates. And, like Barbary hackers, today’s hackers often operate with the backing or cover of hostile powers. The wisdom of our founding fathers should not be ignored. While the bulk of President Biden’s May 12 executive order was already US government policy, his call to strengthen the cybersecurity of the government and its contractors is right. As the administration has rightly pointed out, arbitrations for private companies are complex and the government should generally continue to rely on the decisions of their owners and boards of directors. While Europe has a history, dating back to the Crusades, of attempts to negotiate and pay homage, and some colonial rulers (like Adams) preferred this route, most of our Founding Fathers were steadfast in their opposition. American policy today must not waver in its opposition to negotiating with terrorists and paying the cyber ransom. Our founding fathers did not. We shouldn’t either.