Russian and other state-backed hackers continue to target U.S. military members and their families, holding their personal information hostage and threatening, among other things, to attack service members and their families in their homes.
Lori Volkman, the wife of a now-retired U.S. Marine, traveled to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to warn lawmakers that bad actors, such as Russia and terror groups operating in the Middle East, still pose a threat to active military members and their families.
Volkman's family was attacked in 2015 by Russian-backed hackers posing as ISIS terrorists. The hackers stole her personal information—including credit card information—and sent her family threats via social media.
Volkman is now driving an effort to force Congress to enact legislation that would protect families like hers from similar cyber attacks.
"I'm remembering how my safety net was shattered that day" upon "realizing military families were not untouchable," Volkman told the Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday between meetings on Capitol Hill.
Volkman's experience has become increasingly common among military families with members stationed abroad. While the Pentagon routinely warns active personnel about cyber vulnerabilities, their families are often unfamiliar with the possibility of a state-backed hack. Bad actors such as Russia and Iran view family members as softer targets and use the information gleaned from their personal data as leverage against U.S. troops abroad.
"You can see the increase and rise in this happening," Volkman said. "That's the big issue. You would expect combatants to be targeted. Cyber hacking goes to the military family member. That's what's so unusual. We're not combatants that have anything to do with the military action. We're civilians."
Some of the messages she received stated, "Bloody Valentine's Day" and "Lori Volkman! You think you're safe but the IS is already here, #CyberCaliphate got into your PC and smartphone."
Volkman recalled the terror she felt upon discovering her personal information had been stolen by unknown, potentially violent entities.
"I was standing in the upstairs of my house and read this tweet that said, ‘We're closer than you think,'" she recalled. "There was a car that drove up in front of my house and stopped. There was a man in it and he sat there for a long period of time. I was thinking to myself, ‘This is it. They've come for me. What am I going to do?'"
"My husband was traveling, so I was alone with two young children," Volkman recalled. "You can't run. Your children are here in the house. What am I going to do? At that moment everyone I didn't know was a threat."
While the attack on Volkman's family was orchestrated by Russian hackers, terrorist groups operating on behalf of Iran and other rogue nations have also targeted American military families.
As recently as 2019, cybersecurity experts found that Iranian-backed cyber terrorists had placed malware on computers belonging to U.S. military veterans. The goal of these hackers is to infiltrate computers belonging to current military members on the chance that they could gain access to Pentagon networks, where they could then siphon off sensitive military information.
New legislation making its way through Congress could provide a safety net for those American military families—as well as other citizens—who have fallen victim to these cyber attacks.
Reps. Jack Bergman (R., Mich.) and Andy Kim (D., N.J.) are pushing legislation known as the Homeland And Cyber Threat Act (HACT Act), which would hold foreign governments accountable for cyber crimes committed on their behalf. A companion version in the Senate is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.
Volkman urged congressmen and their staff to fix loopholes that prevent families like hers from holding their hackers accountable.
Under current U.S. law, it is impossible to sue foreign governments in court over such behavior due to a regulation called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). This law shields rogue nations from facing penalties for crimes such as hacking.
"The concept of someone assaulting me from overseas was not really thought of," Volkman said of FSIA's shortcoming.
Lawmakers backing the new legislation also argue that the FSIA is outdated and does not account for the proliferation of malicious behavior that has spread with the growth of the Internet. The HACT Act would amend current law so that foreign states are no longer immune in the U.S. court system, meaning that foreign officials, employees, or agents could be brought to justice under the new bill.