2021 continued the trend of increased regulatory focus on privacy and cybersecurity for private investment funds in the U.S. and abroad. There are no signs of the trend leveling off any time soon.

One of the topics that captured our attention last year was the rise of ransomware. As previously shared, ransomware has evolved from merely encrypting files/disabling networks in solicitation of ransom, to sophisticated attacks penetrating data systems and debilitating entities.  Thus, while money continues to be an obvious motivator for these attacks, increasingly so is the pursuit of intellectual property and data.  Regulatory agencies have responded to combat the increase in attacks. For example, in October 2020, OFAC issued an Advisory declaring that any payment made to a sanctioned entity on OFAC’s list would be a violation of federal sanctions regulations and the paying entity would be strictly liable. Importantly, this means that the intent of the victim, and the knowledge as to whether the entity is on OFAC’s list, is no defense. While OFAC intends to decrease ransomware attack compliance through the issuance of its list of sanctioned entities, the nature of ransomware makes it difficult for the victim of an attack to be able to identify what entity is actually being paid.  This ambiguity may cause victims of ransomware attacks to unintentionally violate OFAC’s sanctions and be held strictly liable despite the publication of a list of sanctioned entities.

Over the past few weeks, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued further guidance in the form of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and General Licenses that clarify the terms of the Order and its Chinese Military Sanctions Program. To a large degree, OFAC’s guidance confirms

Ransomware is a Serious and Growing Problem

In recent years, Ransomware has evolved from merely encrypting files/disabling networks in solicitation of ransom, to sophisticated attacks that often involve actual data access, theft and sometimes, the threat of publication. These sophisticated malware attacks frequently destroy backups and provide criminals even more leverage over their victims, coercing them to pay ransoms.  Ransomware does not just target businesses – it is often used to attack hospitals, research institutions, and other public services that are especially critical during this global pandemic.

It is increasingly common for Ransomware attacks to be associated with large sophisticated cyber-criminal organizations, with a central entity providing the tools, training, and ability to collect ransoms and sending its “associates” out to cause harm. As long as victims continue to pay ransoms, Ransomware is able to expand. Ransomware is also being adapted for new, criminal purposes.  Increasingly, hackers associated with countries like Iran and North Korea are using Ransomware to generate an influx of cash into their economic streams and bypass economic sanctions. Faced with an urgent need to stop the spread of Ransomware, law enforcement is now moving past its old strategy of strongly discouraging victims from paying ransoms. Regulatory agencies – such as OFAC and the SEC – are implementing regulations to prevent victims from paying ransom to buy their way out of a Ransomware attack.  These regulations arm law enforcement with a new enforcement mechanism – allowing them to punish companies who choose to pay ransom in the face of a Ransomware attack. Accordingly, they signal a new area of regulatory enforcement that will likely become the government’s most powerful tool to curb the spread of Ransomware.

In the ever-evolving and complex world of economic sanctions, voluntary self-disclosure is frequently the best long-term strategy for any company that discovers a violation of a sanctions regime. The more difficult task is to assess the costs and benefits of self-disclosure in cases where the conduct falls into a gray