FBI director to warn Congress of dangers Chinese hackers pose to American infrastructure, innovation

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Washington — Hackers backed by the Chinese government are targeting U.S. water treatment plants and electrical grids, strategically positioning themselves within critical infrastructure systems to “wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities,” FBI Director Christopher Wray is expected to tell  Congress Wednesday. 

There has been far too little public focus on the fact that PRC hackers are targeting our critical infrastructure,” Wray will warn the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, according to excerpts of his remarks obtained by CBS News. “The risk that poses to every American requires our attention — now.” 

The head of the FBI and other national security officials — including Jen Easterly, who leads the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — are scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing focused on the cybersecurity threat posed by China’s government. 

Wray is expected to tell Congress that much of the framework upon which Americans rely for daily tasks, like oil and natural gas pipelines and transportation systems, is vulnerable to a cyberattack supported by China’s ruling party. 

Last May, Microsoft security researchers unearthed a hacking operation, code-named “Volt Typhoon.” Active since mid-2021, researchers determined it “could disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia region during future crises.”

Cyber experts say Volt Typhoon utilizes botnets – networks of infected internet-connected devices that can be used to bring down sensitive targets. Typically, initial access is gained through unsecured routers or modems. 

Activity by the China-based hacking group reportedly alarmed U.S. officials, given its proximity to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. China has ramped up its military activities near the island in recent years in response to what Beijing claims is “collusion” between Taiwan and the U.S.

The naval port in Guam would play a critically important role in launching any U.S. military response in the event of a Taiwanese invasion. Microsoft noted at the time that Chinese intelligence and military hackers routinely prioritize espionage and the gathering of information.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Justice Department and FBI targeted the hackers behind Volt Typhoon and received court authorization to remotely disable aspects of the hacking campaign. Remotely disabling hackers behind cyberattacks is a new weapon in the U.S. government’s cyber defense arsenal. 

Earlier this month, the FBI and CISA also pushed out a new alert, warning that Chinese-manufactured drones, or UAS, pose a “significant risk” to critical infrastructure and U.S. national security.

“The use of Chinese-manufactured UAS in critical infrastructure operations risks exposing sensitive information to PRC authorities, jeopardizing U.S. national security, economic security, and public health and safety,” the bulletin read.

Other top public officials, like Attorney General Merrick Garland, have also warned of the threat China’s government poses to Americans’ well being, economic prosperity and innovation. In the last year, the Justice Department has announced novel cases calling out Chinese chemical companies for aiding the fentanyl epidemic and secret Chinese police stations working to quiet Chinese dissidents living in the U.S. 

“Today, and literally every day, they’re actively attacking our economic security, engaging in wholesale theft of our innovation, and our personal and corporate data,” Wray is expected to tell Congress Wednesday. “They target our freedoms, reaching inside our borders, across America, to silence, coerce, and threaten our citizens and residents.” 

Last year, the Justice Department launched the Disruptive Technology Strike Force to target rival nations like China that seek to use American high-tech advances to undermine national security and upset the rule of law.  

U.S. officials are paying more attention to how foreign adversaries try to use investments to gain access to American technology and data. In announcing the department’s new initiative last February, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the Biden administration is looking at options to enable federal regulators to monitor the flow of American money into foreign tech sectors, while making sure those funds do not advance the national security interests of other nations, including China. 

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