For countries that wished to move goods and treasure back in the 16th and 17th centuries, wind-powered sailing ships and ocean transit were the only option. And pirates were a major, major problem. Pirate gangs like those headed by Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), the Barbarossa brothers and Captain William Kidd plied the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and coast of Central and South America (aka “The Spanish Main), the Mediterranean the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, seizing cargo including gold, jewelry and raw materials that fueled the home economies of colonizing nations like England, Spain and Portugal.
Modern Problem, Ancient Roots
The groups were a persistent menace, but they weren’t merely crooks. Many operated as “privateers,” helping to further the interests and ambitions of sponsor nations, like England and Spain. Sir Francis Drake is best known for circumnavigating the globe, but he was also a pirate of the first order: raiding Spanish colonial settlements in what is now Mexico and the West Coast of the United States on his way around the world. And he operated with the support of England’s Queen Elizabeth, who was interested in weakening the strength of the Spanish Navy on the high seas.
All that complexity bears a striking resemblance to a modern scourge on commerce: ransomware. Today, ransomware gangs – like pirates of yore – swoop in on businesses, critical infrastructure owners and public sector agencies with no notice, holding them hostage for ransoms and stealing sensitive data. Behind these groups lurk sponsor nations, first and foremost Russia, which give them safe harbor to operate and benefit, indirectly, from the chaos they sow in rival economies.
Joey, Talk to Russia (about Ransomware)
That’s why ransomware was very much on the agenda when Russian Prime minister Vlad Putin and President Joe Biden met in Geneva this week. Among other things, Biden was expected to push Putin on that country’s practice of allowing ransomware gangs operate from within its borders. And, while there were no clear agreements reached about cyber security cooperation at the summit, there is evidence that industrialized nations are waking up to the threat posed by these groups.
To discuss what lessons history might hold for them as they confront this 21st century form of pirating, we invited Andy Jaquith back into the SL studios. Andy is the CSO at the firm QOMPLX and an expert on cyber security with a background in political science and economics In this conversation we talk about the deep similarities between the ransomware scourge of the early 21st century and the problems posed by pirates to sea faring nations back in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. We also discuss what lessons the rise – and fall – of piracy might have for countries interested in putting a check on ransomware groups.
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