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FBI Director Christopher Wray addresses cybersecurity at Boston College

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual Boston Conference on Cyber Security at Boston College's Gasson Hall.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual Boston Conference on Cyber Security at Boston College's Gasson Hall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Coronavirus may be dominating the current news cycle but our digital devices are susceptible to pandemics too — and no one is immune.

Instead, today’s cyberthreats grow stronger, more complex, and reach farther, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday at the Cyber Security Conference at Boston College.

“The scope has changed; the impact has deepened,” he said. "The flood of cyber intrusions and attacks is unrelenting.”

The one-day conference was the fourth collaboration between the FBI and the Woods College of Advancing Studies, which offers a master’s program in cybersecurity policy and governance.

Cybercrimes, cyberthreats, cyber intrusions and cyber scammers have gotten so savvy and are ever-changing and advancing at such a rapid rate that it’s time for one and all to step up their game, Wray said.

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Ransomware attacks increased by nearly 40 percent from 2018 to 2019, said Joseph Bonavolonta, who heads the FBI’s Boston office. New England states were hit even harder, he said before introducing Wray.

“We can’t just fight this threat one by one: One bad guy at a time, one syndicate at a time, one victim company at a time,” Wray said to FBI agents, students, staff, and cyber experts gathered in Gasson Hall. “We’ve also got to tackle the cyberthreat as a whole, applying our capabilities, our intelligence, and our partnerships to their full extent.”

Wray did not address potential cyberthreats to US elections.

We live in a time, Wray said, when cyber tools capable of paralyzing entire hospitals, police departments, and businesses are traded in cryptocurrency on the darknet.

Sometimes the bad actors are hackers in it for the money, other times they’re American adversaries. Oftentimes it’s China, he said, but Russia, Iran, and North Korea also have been involved.

“All of them and others are working to simultaneously strengthen themselves and to weaken the United States," he said.

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They’re in it to steal our ideas, innovation, research, and technology, Wray said, “anything that can give them a competitive advantage.”

And the defense industry is not the only target, he said.

American adversaries also have gone after companies with products as far ranging as proprietary rice seeds, software for wind turbines, and high-end medical devices, he said.

To combat the cyber dangers, “America deploys a whole cyber ecosystem" with the FBI at the core, Wray said.

Among the FBI’s enhanced strategies to tackle crime in the cyber realm in a “more thoughtful, driven, and agile” way is its Cyber Action Team and various cyber task forces, outreach, and information sharing.

The agency has also formed cyber squads in every one of its 56 field offices, Wray said.

Agents are working to establish international coalitions with like-minded countries, as well as domestic relationships with universities, nongovernment groups, companies, and other potential victims before there’s a problem.

“Whether you’re a corporate victim of a massive data breach, or whether you’re a person turned upside down by fraud, we want to be there," Wray said.

He referenced a 2018 SamSam Ransomware attack in which malicious software was used to hack into hospitals, schools, and government agencies. Among its more than 200 victims were the City of Atlanta, the Port of San Diego, and MedStar Health.

The FBI collaborated with victims countrywide, foreign intelligence, and companies, Wray said.

“With all those pieces of the puzzle, we were able to attribute the attack to two Iranians,” he said.

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Further investigations showed the pair were working for personal profit and not on behalf of the Iranian government, Wray said.

“Partnerships are what made all of this possible."

The FBI will continue to indict and arrest the cybercriminals they can identify, Wray said. The others, they’ll expose and put out of business, he said.

As for foreign countries caught trying to sell stolen data, sanctions could be in store, he said.

The end game, Wray said, is “instead of capturing a single criminal, we’re taking down an entire enterprise.”


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.