Officials warn of increased hacking threat during holiday season

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Senior Biden administration cybersecurity officials warned business leaders Thursday to be on guard against cyberattacks during the upcoming holiday season, noting that hackers are often more active when Americans are taking time away from work.

National Cyber Director Chris Inglis and Anne Neuberger, the national security advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology, sent a letter to corporate executives and business leaders highlighting the need to be on alert against attacks in the next few weeks.

"The holidays are an opportunity to spend time with our loved ones and enjoy some well-earned rest," Inglis and Neuberger wrote. "Unfortunately, malicious cyber actors are not taking a holiday - and they can ruin ours if we're not prepared and protected."

The warning was the latest of several from the White House put out in advance of recent holidays, including ahead of both Labor Day weekend and the week of Thanksgiving this year. The alerts were put out after a series of major hacks earlier in the year all took place during or just ahead of holiday weekends.

These included the ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline that crippled fuel supplies for the East Coast, which took place just ahead of Mother's Day weekend. Meat producer JBS USA was hit by a separate attack over Memorial Day weekend, while IT company Kaseya was hit by a ransomware attack, potentially compromising up to 1,500 other businesses, during the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

"Historically we have seen breaches around national holidays because criminals know that security operations centers are often short-staffed, delaying the discovery of intrusions," the officials wrote. "Beyond the holidays, though, we've experienced numerous recent events that highlight the strategic risks we all face because of the fragility of digital infrastructure and the ever-present threat of those who would use it for malicious purposes."

In order to prevent attacks during the upcoming holiday season, Inglis and Neuberger recommended that organizations take steps including patching vulnerable systems, mandating multi-factor authentication on sensitive accounts, increasing cyber awareness training for employees, and backing up data, among other steps.

"In many cases criminals plan and actually begin an intrusion before the holiday itself - they infiltrate a network and lie in wait for the optimal time to launch an attack," the officials wrote. "It is therefore essential that you convene your leadership team now to make your organization a harder target for criminals."

The letter was sent in the midst of a global response by cybersecurity professionals to the vulnerability in Apache logging package log4j, discovered late last week, which has left organizations worldwide vulnerable to exploitation.

Cybersecurity researchers have seen targeting of organizations through the use of the vulnerability by nations including China and Iran this week, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has taken steps to defend organizations and ensure other agencies are implementing a patch. The vulnerability is so widespread that the FBI put out a statement Wednesday encouraging victimized organizations to report attacks, but noted that "the FBI and CISA may be unable to respond to each victim individually."

Inglis and Neuberger pointed on Thursday to strides made in cybersecurity, but stressed that more can still be done.

"All of us can, and must, play a part to improve the Nation's cybersecurity," Inglis and Neuberger wrote. "The U.S. government and the private sector have accomplished much together in the past year, and we have much more to do in 2022 and beyond."