Jan 31, 2024 - Technology

Top U.S. officials warn Congress of China's hacking powers

US Cyber Commander, General Paul Nakasone; Director Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Jen Easterly; FBI Director, Christopher Wray; and National Cyber Director Harry Coker Jr., are sworn in during a Congressional full committee hearing

U.S. Cyber Commander Gen. Paul Nakasone, CISA Director Jen Easterly; FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Cyber Director Harry Coker Jr., are sworn into a House hearing on Chinese cyber threats. Photo: Julia Nikhinson/AFP via Getty Images.

China-backed hacking campaigns have shown a persistent willingness to shut down U.S. critical infrastructure and incite societal panic, top U.S. officials told lawmakers during a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Why it matters: As tensions escalate between the U.S. and China, officials worry that Beijing could wreak havoc on basic services, including access to clean water and electric power.

What they're saying: "The threat is not theoretical," Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said during a House Select Committee hearing on the Chinese Communist Party.

  • "This is a world where a major crisis halfway across the planet could well endanger the lives of Americans here at home — through the disruption of our pipelines, the severing of our telecommunications, the pollution of our water facilities, [and] the crippling of our transportation modes," she said.

Threat level: China has shown a new interest in preparing and launching destructive cyberattacks against U.S. electricity systems, water utilities, military organizations and other critical services, officials told lawmakers Wednesday.

  • That's a divergence from the Chinese government's historical focus on stealing state secrets and espionage.
  • Officials fear that China is laying the foundation for cyberattacks that could hinder the United States' ability to help Taiwan during a potential invasion.

Driving the news: The Department of Justice confirmed Wednesday that it obtained court authorization to remove malicious files from routers infected during a Chinese hacking operation carried out by hacker group Volt Typhoon last year.

  • Reuters first reported on the court order earlier this week.

The big picture: The number of China-backed hackers outnumber the FBI's total cyber and intelligence resources 50 to 1, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers.

  • "The PRC has a bigger hacking program than that of any major nation combined," Wray said.

Between the lines: Officials urged lawmakers to provide more resources for information-sharing partnerships between the government and private sector to better prepare U.S. infrastructure for Chinese cyber threats.

  • Some of those investments include building out the U.S. cyber workforce, pouring additional funding into key agencies and pushing requirements for tech manufacturers to bake cybersecurity into their product designs.

Yes, but: The vast majority of U.S. critical infrastructure is privately owned and operated — leaving government officials at the behest of cash-strapped municipal governments and industry executives to strengthen cyber defenses.

What we're watching: The Biden administration is getting more aggressive in its pursuit to hinder China-backed hacking campaigns.

  • A senior NSA official told reporters during a roundtable last week that the agency will soon release an update to its guidance on fending off Volt Typhoon's hacks.

Go deeper: Suspected China-backed hackers target unpatched flaws in popular remote work tool

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