How CEOs received Biden’s ‘very clear message’ on a looming Russian cyberattack

After weeks of relative silence on the issue, President Joe Biden issued a stark warning to CEOs Monday: Moscow is exploring cyberattacks, they could come soon, and businesses need to do more to prepare.

“The president delivered a very clear message, which is, every company needs to be hardening its cyber defenses,” National Economic Council Director Brian Deese told Yahoo Finance. “And I think it was well-received in part because we’ve been working with the private sector for months now.”

The Biden administration has long emphasized cybersecurity business, spurred by incidents like a May cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, which temporarily cut off nearly 50% of the fuel capacity for the East Coast, and an attack against Meatpacker JBS from June, which threatened the food supply chain.

The US linked both those attacks to Russian-based groups, and fears of cyberwar from Russia itself have flared up since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Biden’s day with CEOs included a private meeting at the White House, a public briefing with reporters, and an evening speech from Biden to assembled CEOs that backs up those fears.

“Based on evolving intelligence, Russia may be planning a cyberattack against us,” Biden said, noting that Russia’s capability is “fairly consequential, and it’s coming.”

President Biden discusses the United States’ response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and warns CEOs about potential cyber attacks from Russia at the Business Roundtable’s CEO Quarterly Meeting in Washington on March 21. (REUTERS/Leah Millis)

Prior to that invasion, the administration took actions like a letter to CEOs warning of cyberattacks during the holiday season and a meeting last August of business leaders to drill the message home.

‘The national interest is at stake’

Contrary to some early expectations, the Russian government has yet to hit the US with any major cyberattacks since the sanctions began. It’s been a different story in Ukraine, where cyberattacks — apparently from Russia — have largely gone hand in hand with conventional warfare.

But the situation could change quickly. “It’s not just your interests that are at stake,” Biden told the CEOs during his public speech. “The national interest is at stake and I would respectfully suggest it’s a patriotic obligations for you to invest as much as you can” to build up cyber defenses.

The White House is urging a range of measures from banks turning on multi-factor authentication by default to running exercises and drills about what to do in case of an attempted breach.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: US Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber ​​and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger speaks during a White House daily press briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.  White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki held a daily press briefing to answer questions from members of the press.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber ​​and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger speaks during a White House daily press briefing on March 21. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber ​​Anne Neuberger told reporters Monday there is evidence of “preparatory activity” on the part of those who might be planning an attack. “That preparatory activity can pan out to become an incident,” she said, adding that the possibility is “the reason we’re here.”

At the end of the day, Deese notes, the private sector is responsible for filling holes in cybersecurity — and they are already stepping up. “The exchange was very frank and very pragmatic,” he said of the meetings this week, with everyone operating “on a state of high alert.”

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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