Chinese government hackers are targeting water treatment plants, the electrical grid, transportation systems and other critical infrastructure in the United States, FBI Director Chris Wray told House lawmakers Wednesday in the latest warning from Washington about Beijing's global ambitions.
Underscoring the threat, the Justice Department and FBI announced before the trial that they had disrupted a botnet of hundreds of US-based small office and home routers belonging to private citizens and companies that had been hijacked by Chinese government hackers to cover and hide their tracks. Their origin is because they seed the malware.
Speaking before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Wray said there was “too little public attention” to the cyber threat that affects “every American.”
“China's hackers are preparing to wreak havoc on American citizens and communities and cause real-world harm if and when China decides it's time to strike,” Wray said.
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Jen Easterly, director of the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity division, echoed a similar sentiment at the hearing.
“This is a world where a major crisis across the planet would greatly endanger the lives of Americans at home by disrupting our pipelines, severing our telecommunications, polluting our water facilities, crippling our transportation systems. To confirm that they can incite social panic and chaos and hamper our ability to “respond,” she said.
The comments echo expectations from outside cybersecurity firms, including Microsoft, which said in May that government-backed Chinese hackers had targeted US critical infrastructure and could lay the technological foundation to disrupt critical communications between the US and Asia in a future crisis. .
That operation, attributed to a group of hackers known as Volt Typhoon, has now been disrupted after FBI and Justice Department officials obtained search and seizure warrants in a Texas federal court. Hackers infiltrate targets by disguising themselves as normal traffic through a variety of means, including cloud and internet providers.
The US has become more aggressive over the past few years in trying to disrupt and dismantle criminal and state-sponsored cyber activities. But state-sponsored hackers, especially Chinese and Russian, are good at adapting and finding new intrusion methods and means.
“Today and literally every day, they are actively attacking our financial security, engaging in the wholesale theft of our innovation and our personal and corporate data,” Wray said of China.
US officials have long worried about hackers hiding in US-based infrastructure, and the end-of-life Cisco and NetGear routers exploited by Volt Typhoon were easy prey because their manufacturers didn't support them with security updates. Out of necessity, US cyber operators removed the malware from those routers without notifying their owners directly and added code to prevent reinfection, law enforcement officials said.
A Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under government-mandated ground rules, said officials decided to disrupt the Volt Typhoon operation as quickly as possible because hackers are using the botnet as a stepping stone to hide in US Internet traffic. Access to critical infrastructure networks, ready to exploit that access maliciously at any time they choose.
China claims that the allegations made by the US government are baseless. Beijing accuses the US of “almost daily” and “massive intrusions against the Chinese government,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last year, adding that “China is the biggest victim of cyber attacks.”
But General Paul Nakasone, the outgoing commander of US Cyber Command, said “responsible cyber actors” will not target civilian infrastructure.
“There's no reason for them to be in our water,” Nakasone said. “There is no reason for them to be under our authority.”
On Tuesday, testifying before the same committee, Leon Panetta, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and as defense secretary in the Obama administration, warned that he believed Chinese agents had “planted malware into our own computer networks.” The Chinese government is using artificial intelligence to spread disinformation.
The committee, chaired by Republican Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, was established last year with a mandate to confront China, starting with a prime-time hearing. The Chinese government lashed out at the committee, demanding that its members “discard their ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality.”
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